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The Game of God

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--Day 150 continued--

Despite the short period of time they were in HQ, Fourth Street already hosts a considerable number of the celebrants, including several vendors of alcohol setting up on the sidewalks as well as those with goods for trade. Unsurprisingly, the eastern side of Fourth Street has the greatest concentration so far. Roughly two hundred feet from the last standing building and within Teresa's ward line (and the revised patrol route, he assumes), the bonfire is located in what appears to be the parking lot of a strip of stores, though all that remains are concrete foundations and badly cracked asphalt. The rubble was only recently cleared and set in discrete piles for use as another barrier against attacks, which Tony and Walter are currently working on designing.

He slows as they approach the end of the street, watching the flames licking yellow-red tongues over the piled wood and toward the sky. It's nearly fifteen feet in height and twice that in width, the progress of the fire slower than he's accustomed to. Insufficient quantities of accelerants, probably; they have to be applied during the construction so as not to miss a single piece of fuel.

"Cas?"

Or they aren't using them; of course not, why would they? Accelerants are for when your purpose is to burn quickly and thoroughly, increasing the heat to burn flesh and blood into ash, crumbling bone into blackened splinters, not for a fire created for pleasure. An electric orange flare bursts from the top, and for a dizzying moment, he remembers the last burn that he stood witness, consuming the bodies of the team leaders who followed Dean Winchester to that fatal encounter with Lucifer and died in the streets of Kansas City, to buy him the time that he needed.

The one before that didn't require any fuel but an archangel's Grace. He watched a single human body burned to ash before his eyes while Lucifer smiled at him over all that remained of his world entire.

"Cas?"

He didn't even realize he'd stopped until Dean's hand closes over his arm, tugging him unresistingly until abruptly, he's leaning against rough brick, the dimly-lit alley stretched cool and quiet around him.

"Hey, look at me." Gentle hands coax him to turn his head until he looks into worried green eyes. "There we go," Dean murmurs. "Talk to me, Cas. You okay?"

"I didn't understand," he hears himself say, eyes drifting helplessly toward the orange-lit mouth of the alley, streaked with dancing red-gold. "When we were at Alpha when we--when we…."

"Uh-uh," Dean says, hand tightening on his jaw until the orange vanishes even from peripheral vision. "Me, Cas. Alpha--what happened?" He glances briefly at the mouth of the alley before looking at him again. "Your first burn, right?"

He nods jerkily. "I went to--I was required to attend them all. I resented it," he adds. "It took time that I could have spent learning everything I needed to know, but Dean said--he said everyone went and so I had to as well."

"Whole camp went, yeah," Dean says, nodding. "That's where Chitaqua got it, I wondered about that. Makes sense."

"It didn't to me." He stiffens at the admission, but Dean's expression is reassuringly free of frustration and anger, the barely-hidden flickers of distaste that Dean then was unable to entirely hide. "It was simply practical. Human bodies are salted and burned to break their binding with the earth, so that their souls could find rest and their bodies couldn't be used after their souls left them." Dean nods encouragingly. "Why they wrapped it in ritual and required there be an audience made no sense. It didn't mean anything…." He stops at the familiar sound of those words, words that he'd thrown at Dean more times than he wants to count when they were at Alpha and never spoke again after they left. Leaning back against the cold brick, he hears himself start to laugh. "It didn't mean anything."

"Until it did." Dean cocks his head, green eyes searching. "Bobby. It was Bobby."

"The first burn at Chitaqua." He tips his head back to stare up at the slice of night sky, roiling in shades of charcoal and soot. "Dean brought him back, and we--Chuck went with one of the new recruits for the correct supplies. We didn't have them yet." A melting plastic grin spreads across his face. "You would have hated it, Dean. We had five hundred weapons per person and only two cabins with running water, three jeeps of rock salt and nothing but canned beans and spam to eat in a camp meant to hunt monsters but no provisions with which to care for the remains of the hunters they killed but a few lighters and a great deal of brush. There wasn't even--even a clean sheet with which to wrap his body.

"When Chuck returned, we--Dean and I prepared his body," he continues, smile fading. "Decomposition and--it was too much of a risk. I asked Dean to let me bathe and dress him while he prepared his shroud, and we wrapped him together while Chuck directed the recruits on how to build his pyre."

He closes his eyes, remembering spreading out the sheet without crease, brushing away stray grass and dirt before Dean laid Bobby in the center. Without expression, they stripped Bobby of his belt and cross and salt and knives, checked his pockets and removed his boots. Starting at Bobby's feet, Dean taught Castiel how to wrap him with every slow, crisp fold, tucking the flaps in with brisk efficiency with hands he refused to let shake.

They opened the door to air as soaked in gasoline as the freshly cut branches layered with grass and dry scrub and salt, the sound of the recruits voices cutting off as they laid Bobby's body carefully in the center of the pile of inexpertly-piled wood. Dean lit the torch just as the sun dipped beneath the horizon, thrusting it into the wood, and the dulled yellows and grey-pink of the setting sun fading before the yellow-gold sparks and flares of bright orange. The minutes passed like days, hours like decades as the flames climbed in inexorable red-orange tongues before hungrily consuming the white-wrapped bundle between one breath and the next. Dean's hand rested on his shoulder from the first spark until nothing but ash and blackened ground remained, but it wasn't until dawn that he saw in the mirror the shape of Dean's fingers picked out in purple-black against his skin, and looked down blankly at the bloody crescents decorating the palm of each hand, fingertips coated in dried blood.

This was mortality, he realized; not this corporeal body that he was trapped within, this finite world and the endless progression of linear time before the final cessation of life. It was a three week absence that would never end, a freshly painted bedroom whose occupant would never see it, a newly-built wheelchair ramp that would never again be used, an oven and refrigerator left unrepaired, a door unhung; it was ashes and dust where there was an extraordinary man, a gaping absence that could never be filled, a grief that ripped and tore with every endless, airless breath in a world so much smaller, so much colder for a single man's absence. He thought the hardest thing he would ever do is Fall for Dean; he didn't know the meaning of the word.

Then he's pulled away from the brick and against the warmth of a living, breathing body, arms wrapping around him before he can pull away or even think to try.

"S'okay," he hears Dean whisper when he tries to speak and only a choked sound emerges. "Come on, let it out."

Forehead resting against a strong shoulder, he remembers the pre-dawn hours he spent digging the hole for Dean's ashes only inches from where he placed Bobby's. Opening the body bag, they puffed up in grey clouds as he poured them into the salt-lined hole, clinging to his hands and coating his tongue with every sobbing breath. Kneeling by the fresh mound of dirt and hidden by the protective circle of trees, he looked at the two places that he'd buried the breadth of his world entire and wondered at the lie that no one dies from grief. Parts of him lie with them beneath the same cold dirt, have burned to nothing in every fire.

"That night--the team leaders--I didn't see you, but you were there," Dean murmurs unexpectedly, fingers threading though his hair. "Drinking on the roof of that cabin by the fire, right?"

Startled, he pulls back enough to look at Dean. "How did you--"

"Bottle was half-empty when you gave it to me," Dean answers with a faint smile. "No one showing up for the regularly scheduled orgy that night--or the next morning--might have also been a clue." Despite himself, Castiel chokes on a laugh. "Going to a burn and then drinking alone the rest of the night…don't even need to ask where you picked up that habit." Leaning closer, Dean rests his forehead against his own. "You risked Lucifer to make sure Dean's body was burned while you watched. You hated the team leaders, but you were still there. You go to all of them, don't you?"

"Every one." He thinks of Bobby, of Risa and the other team leaders who died in Kansas City; of Luke and Debra and the unknown number of deaths that preceded theirs, the responsibility he bears for them all despite only Luke died by his hand; of the members of Chitaqua who died in the line of duty in service to humanity. Their bodies were only empty shells that once housed vibrant, living souls, but it felt like a second death to consign them to the flames: ashes to ashes and dust to dust: as they began, so shall they end. He was never sober, never clean, but he stood witness each and every time, watching existence end like the last spark of the fire burning out and leaving nothing behind but a memory to mark their presence on earth. "Now I understand why we do it."

Dean nods. "Yeah."

"It's different for everybody," he whispers. "Time heals nothing. It's not a test. If it is, surviving is all I have to do to pass." Nothing works until you figure out how to even want to.

"Almost," Dean whispers, tipping his head up and meeting his eyes. "You don't have to do it alone."

He looks into the green eyes of the man that made him want to try, cheeks flushed with cold and lips parted on an indrawn breath that shudders to a stop when Castiel kisses him. The stillness barely has a chance to register before Dean hand slides up, fingers threading through his hair and cushioning his head from the icy brick of the wall behind him. He eases closer, extending the brief touch into a steady warmth that lasts forever.

The sudden sound of nearby laughter only feet away shatters the fragile silence, and Castiel emerges into the reality of a freezing alley in a southern Kansas town, but when Dean draws back, it's only far enough to rest his forehead against his own, breath pluming white between them.

"You okay?"

Strangely enough, he thinks he is. Nodding, there's a brief hesitation before Dean reluctantly straightens.

"We can go cheat at poker for a hell of a lot of brownies," Dean offers, belatedly shoving his hands on his pockets as if he's not sure what to do with them. You don't have to do this, he doesn't say. It's not a test.

Castiel glances involuntarily toward the mouth of the alley, the reflection of the dancing fire on the road outside, and slowly shakes his head. Everything's a test, but this is one he sets for himself; it's part of the life Dean wants him to live and just surviving isn't enough to pass. He wants to live it, with Dean. "I want to see it."


As they pick their way between the various groups and couples--who even in the short time between his first view and now have doubled, perhaps even tripled in number--Castiel finds welcome distraction in the crowd, snatches of conversation and sudden bursts of laughter, the unexpectedly familiar faces appearing among them that smile, wave greeting that he finds himself returning without thought.

Sudha, only a few feet from the outside edge, is seated on a blanket and leaning back against Rabin's chest as she talks to Neeraja, one hand resting on her protruding stomach as she nods at something that Anthi, sitting on Neeraja's other side, is saying. On another blanket nearby, Tony is talking to Dennis and two other residents of Ichabod, his youngest daughter asleep beneath a blanket in his lap while the older one, tucked beneath his arm, listens intently while holding a steaming mug with another resident's child dozing beneath a blanket across her legs.

Studying the crowd again more carefully, he picks out the presence of more children sprinkled among the adults, sleeping or talking or simply watching the fire with wide eyes. Reviewing the celebration thus far, he's startled to note how many of them have been present, either among the crowd or gathered at tables with their parents or in adult arms, playing hunter-and-demon between piles of rubble or ducking into doorways of buildings, excited shrieks echoing through the dull roar of conversation under indulgent adult eyes.

Humans adapt, he told Dean, and in terms of both evolution and society, what is nature and what is choice, it's true, but never more than at this moment has it been so visceral. Isolated and rejected by their own governments, preyed on by monsters whittling away their numbers in a world now without any context their lives could have given them to recognize, they adapted. They changed enough to do it, they made themselves fit to survive it, and they're raising a new generation learning what their parents sometimes paid with their own lives to teach them. In between life and imminent death, however, they have barbecue and masala to eat and alcohol to drink and companions to share it with, lives to be lived before a fire to chase away the winter's cold.

Lost in his own thoughts, he almost runs into Dean, who's come to a sudden stop, eyes fixed on a point a few feet away and looking amused. "What--"

"Shh." Dean covers his mouth with a stern glance, shaking his head firmly before looking back at whatever gained his attention. Following his gaze, Castiel sees Alicia seated by the town's young engineer, Walter, just a few feet away.

"….engineering," Walter is telling Alicia, waving a plastic cup with a flaking image of a mouse with surprisingly large ears on the surface and almost hitting a nearby neighbor. Glancing at Dean, Castiel sees him biting his lip as Walter continues seriously, "You have to know exactly how to stack the wood or it could all come down on top of us. Not easy, not gonna lie about that. You know about what went down at A&M in Texas a few year ago, right?"

"Oh yeah." Alicia nods as she takes a drink from her own cup (a stylized cat, he observes, and the word 'Hello' barely legible just above its oversized head, with the second word completely worn away). "Unbelievable."

Castiel looks at Dean, who shrugs, and he misses yet again Google and the ability to enter '+"A and M" +Texas' into the text box and see immediate results (with '+bonfire', perhaps?). Even as an angel, searching his infinite memory was only as useful as his own understanding of what it was he searched for, and the lack of keyword capability in their design continues to be an inexplicable oversight by his Father, all things considered. Or at least decent algorithm capabilities, a word that Enochian lacks and desperately needs.

"Gotta give the guy credit for balls," Dean murmurs as Walter begins to explain the complicated process of selecting and arranging the wood for optimal results with many complicated hand gestures (and nearly concussing a young man behind him). Nodding, Alicia surreptitiously scans the area around her, cup coming to an abrupt halt inches from her mouth when she sees them. Dean gives her a thumbs-up and a malicious smile, ignoring her narrowed eyes to wind a hand in Castiel's coat and continue their journey toward a still unknown (to Castiel, anyway) destination. "He's a nice kid. She'll let him down easy."

Glancing back curiously, he notes Alicia's determined attention to Walter's surprisingly lengthy monologue before turning his attention to Walter himself. While like most of the residents of Ichabod he's very thin for his height and body type, he seems to satisfy most human aesthetics of attractiveness; the close-cropped, curly black hair surrounds a dark brown face with wide, sharply intelligent brown eyes and a full mouth that seems inclined to smile easily, implying a pleasant personality and adequate sense of humor (having met him, Castiel knows both qualities he has in excess). While lust is biological (and Walter in no way lacks anything that might not incite such), attraction is far more capricious, and the standard changes rapidly, often based on nothing more than availability and proximity.

"Are you checking him out?" Dean breathes in his ear, startling him, and turning his head, it's another surprise to find Dean watching him. "Seriously?"

The answer to that question is obvious. "Of course not." At Dean's raised eyebrows, he assumes elaboration is needed, though from observation, that usually doesn't help at all. "I don't see why she wouldn't consider him a viable partner now that she's no longer involved with Kyle."

"Other than he's just reached drinking age maybe and lives in Ichabod?" Dean cocks his head, eyes narrowing, but Castiel realizes he's trying not to smile only moments before he does it. "Not a bad idea, now that I think about it. Think she could tempt him to Chitaqua to build us a power grid of our very own?"

"I think Alison might kill us--possibly quite literally with her mind--if we take their only working electrical engineer," he answers repressively, not certain why Dean begins to snicker before one hand closes casually over his wrist as they start walking again. "And that's only if Tony doesn't find out first. Where are we--"

"Dean! Over here!" James's voice comes out of nowhere, and scanning the crowd, he locates James, Mira, and Nate sharing a blanket a few feet away, an array of half-filled cups and several bottles before them. James gestures toward them frantically, reaching blindly across Mira to jostle Nate, who looks annoyed before seeing them and obediently following Mira's nudging to move over to provide a narrow space on the blanket. The space increases substantially when Mira pulls James over close enough that with very little effort (that being none at all), she could be in his lap. Both, he notes, look extremely pleased with that development.

"If they were any cuter," Dean observes, "I'd go into sugar shock just looking at 'em."

As they reach the group, Dean starts to remove his coat, muttering, "Jesus, it's like summer over here," and Castiel considers the ambient temperature and proximity of the fire and decides to do the same. Dean almost immediately tugs him down on the blanket beside him, taking the offered cup from James and murmuring something that makes James smile back worshipfully, brown eyes bright.

Castiel doesn't remember James ever looking at Dean's counterpart like that, eager smiles and confident in his welcome with his leader. Then again, Dean has found reasons over the course of James' time on local patrol to seek him out and speak to him, as he's also done with Damiel and Lee, expressing approval for their growing experience as well as ask questions about their lives both here and even before. James is becoming a very competent leader, not least in his developing rapport with his team, especially Nate, who looks less hunted tonight than he has in weeks. Being away from Chitaqua is probably a factor, but Castiel suspects the company may bear equal responsibility.

Vera's acidic comments regarding Zack as well as Nate were as unexpected as they were revelatory. Zack's predilection to air his grievances to the camp may have been justified--if somewhat excessive--but the near-universal condemnation of Nate expressed in so small a community was uncomfortable to witness, and Nate's startlingly well-developed ability to ignore it has been starting to show wear. He hates himself, Vera said; watching Mira nudge Nate to try her drink and laughing at his expression, he wonders if perhaps James and Mira know a great deal about living a life in which some will always think you live it wrong simply because of what you were born and try to teach you to hate yourself for it.

As Dean laughs at a murmured comment from Nate as he hands Mira back the cup, he passes his drink to Castiel to sample, right hand dropping to rest his knee, thumb stroking over the denim before settling without a single tap. Pausing, he consider the afternoon and evening as a whole; Dean's never been adverse to physical contact, no, but this is both deliberate and with specific meaning when exercised in public.

As one of the few generally accepted public expressions of intimacy, his observations always suggested its function was to denote simple possession, a silent yet unmistakable warning against trespass. It is most definitely that--this is Dean, after all--but it's also more. It occurs to him that at no point did he take into account how the object--that being person--would view the casual gesture, possibly because he was far too drunk, high, or involved with generally non-acceptable public expressions of intimacy--that being sex--to particularly care.

"Okay?" Dean murmurs in his ear, tapping lightly against the side of his knee in a sequence that might denote departure, or perhaps he's asking about the alcohol, which he can't even remember tasting. He thinks of the way Dean took his hand when the crowd became too close; that was a statement as well, but the quick, reassuring pressure as they walked away wasn't for observers to witness and take as warning, but for him alone to feel.

"Yes." Whatever the actual question, the answer is obvious. "Very much, yes."

"Awesome." Dean follows that with a brief, approving squeeze, and Castiel looks down at the cup distractedly, studying the faded picture on the surface and trying to identify it since he's almost sure that suggesting a convenient alley--the one two hundred and thirty-two feet from their current location, quite dark, hopefully empty--is not socially acceptable after only five minutes of social engagement (he thinks). For he must be a good example or something like that, though at this moment the reason for that eludes him.

"The Yankees," Dean tells him, taking it back and sipping absently, eyes scanning the people around them before nudging him with his shoulder. "Check it out--looks like Alicia's letting him down easily. Watch this, Cas--this is the most potentially useful people skill you probably never knew existed."

"I've been turned down before, and declined participation as well," Castiel protests, which for some reason makes Dean roll his eyes. Following his gaze, he watches Alicia gesture, smiling and patting Walter's shoulder companionably as she fluidly rises to her feet before Walter finishes opening his mouth and adding a wave good-bye. Stepping carefully between several groups, she searches the crowd, and Castiel quickly returns his attention to the very fascinating fire.

Abruptly, Dean reaches back for his coat and tosses it on the bare concrete on the other side of Castiel, which is all the warning he gets before Alicia drops onto it with a sigh.

"Thanks, Dean," she says, flashing a grin as she pulls up her knees. Dean thrusts a full cup into his hand, jerking his head toward Alicia with a meaningful look, as if that's supposed to convey--oh.

Turning, he holds it out to Alicia as Dean suddenly engages James in conversation. "Honeyed apple cider and grain alcohol untyped," he says into the silence between them as Alicia looks at the cup. "The proportions could use some adjustment, but it's not terrible."

"Coming from you, that's as good as an endorsement," she decides, eyebrows working at the first careful sip. "Not bad, thanks."

Satisfied with the not-entirely-mediocre flavor, Alicia takes a longer drink. In the flickering light from the fire, the violet shadows beneath her eyes are thrown into stark relief, strain revealed in the tight lines around her mouth, tension lingering in her body even now when it's at rest, and he doubts any of that is a result of her conversation with Walter. When Amanda asked him how Alicia was this morning before they left, he couldn't remember, but he wonders if it was as obvious then as it is now; the answer, he suspects, is yes.

"You know," Alicia starts, hands flexing on the cup frantically before she takes the remaining contents at a gulp. "Nice fire--"

"If you try to make me engage in small talk, you'll be mowing Chitaqua until there is no grass left," Castiel interrupts. "You're worse at it than I am, and this time neither of us have the motivation to get through it that we had the first time we tried."

Alicia's startled expression melts into remembrance. "God, I forgot about that. Most of the time, gotta work up toward that kind of thing, admire the paint or furniture or whatever first, like I care, but people get put off for the stupidest reasons, am I right? Just do what you gotta do, that's what I always say."

"I still have no idea what you were talking about that day," he admits, taking her empty cup and passing it to Dean for a refill, who is suspiciously already turned around as if anticipating just that.

"I don't either," she agrees, shaking her head. "Glad you stopped me; that could have gone on for a while."

Dean thrusts the cup back into his hand and leans forward. "Okay, catch me up; what are you talking about?"

"First time I propositioned Cas," she answers, taking the cup from Dean. "They don't cover 'how to ask an ex-angel about getting laid' anywhere, you know?"

Dean blinks at her, lips parted, but no words seem forthcoming

"I asked around," she clarifies, taking a drink before offering the cup to Castiel. "Just to be sure. Then Ray was like 'just wing it'; he was high in a group setting when he did it, so that was useful, thanks." Shaking her head, she takes back the cup before looking struck. "Wallpaper."

"Wallpaper?" Dean asks blankly, seemingly unaware he has yet to lower his hand from when he was holding out the cup.

"In the cabin," she explains, looking pleased.

"The cabin had wallpaper?"

"No," Castiel says reassuringly. "It's a frequent subject of small talk, however."

Dean raises his eyebrows. "It is?"

Alicia nods. "How are you, weather, pictures, furniture, wallpaper, carpet, and coffee table books, though not necessarily in that order. Mix it up, that's what I always say: predictability is not your friend."

Dean shuts his mouth.

"Weather, floor--no, I commented on the bed--liked the blanket, extremely red--then wallpaper in noting the lack thereof," she continues blithely. "Then Cas said, 'are you here for any reason other than to engage in sexual intercourse, because if so, I don't care'. And I said no, definitely sex and now, you up for it, and…wait." She stops, peering at Dean curiously. "Am I supposed to talk about sex with Cas around you now?"

Castiel waits (he's rather curious as well) while Dean looks between them. "Uh. I."

"It was like, last time was eight months--"

"Six and a half, after your last patrol of Topeka," Castiel corrects her.

"Right, the not-trolls!" Alicia sighs happily, taking another drink before passing the cup to Castiel. "It was great; they were made entirely of magic mud, bullets no go but stab 'em with cold iron soaked in holy water, they crumbled into a pile of dirt right before your eyes. Who saw that coming? Answer: me, for I know everything." He hears Dean snort. "I had such a good time, got like six of 'em before everyone else got with the program. And an even better time when I got back to camp: thought Cas would want to know about artificial constructs mimicking trolls--and not very well, you know what I mean? It wasn't even clay, like that was gonna work--and then Cas said, how about we--"

"No, you shouldn't," Dean interrupts, looking inordinately relieved when Alicia simply nods, finishing off the cup when Castiel hands it back. "Just--it's weird."

"People say that a lot," Alicia observes wisely, shoving the empty cup into Dean's still-extended hand. "It's fine, to each their own, I always say. Refill, please?"

Dean starts to say something before taking a visible breath and turning away to elicit James' assistance. Leaning her chin on her knee, Alicia frowns at the fire for a moment before looking up at Castiel hopefully. "Bad couple of weeks, needed not to think, terrible idea I know, it's over now, I can do the long version but it's the same just a lot more words. And sorry; I should have started with that, but apologies are stressful and I never remember the right order."

"What did Matt and Jody say?" he asks curiously; it's a given that Andy probably didn't notice due to being very busy having feelings.

"When one is stressed and in need of intensive not-thinking, one informs one's friends and/or teammates that is what one will be doing," she recites. "And not hide in one's bedroom with the door locked and furniture blocking it when they come to find out why one is being a dick."

"That's reasonable."

"I thought so, too," she agrees, brightening. "Addendum: or leave friends with unfinished dryer-elf traps and a tentative plan to practice surprise ambush strategies on members of the camp to improve their reflexes and awareness of their surroundings, and I was really looking forward to that. We can still do that when we get back, right? I have so many ideas, and we have three nets and six gallons of yellow paint--neon, even--in inventory. I checked."

Utilizing his already excellent reflexes, Castiel catches the full cup before Dean drops it. "Not on you, of course," he explains, giving the cup to Alicia. "We just thought--with the lack of active combat--that everyone's skills regarding watching for unexpected threats may be degrading."

"What," Dean says slowly, "are you going to do to my camp?"

"We only just started the list, so really, could be anything," Alicia answers with a happy sigh. "The possibilities are endless."

"Right," Dean says, taking a long drink from his own cup. "So, how about Walter? Nice kid."

"I know, right?" she answers, shaking her head. "I forgot what it was like to talk to someone who I couldn't identify by their scars and which ones I'd been responsible for stitching up. Then I realized he was hitting on me--at least, I think he was, that's what he was doing, right?"

"Yeah, that's what he was doing," Dean agrees sincerely.

"I thought so," she says in satisfaction, resting her arm on her upraised knees. "I've been practicing my social skills upon all the residents I meet to demonstrate we aren't crazy, as you told us at HQ."

"Oh God," Dean says.

"Let me demonstrate," she states, dropping her knees and half-turning to face Castiel. "Are you having a good time at this celebration marking the end of the year?"

"I am," he agrees, as Dean's head drops against his shoulder, and if he's not mistaken, he may be shaking. "It's been very entertaining. Are you?"

"I am as well," she answers politely. "Also, I'm not crazy or visibly armed, and as I represent the residents of Chitaqua, this should confirm we are trustworthy and likeable. Would you please tell my leader that if you see him? Use those words, actually: 'trustworthy' and 'likeable'. He was very adamant that we not terrify you and told us all about it for an hour of my life I'm never getting back."

"So everyone thinks we're really well armed social rejects," Dean mutters before resting his chin on Castiel's shoulder. "Also, fuck you, it wasn't an hour."

"I understand it felt like decades," Castiel says and tries not to wince at the sharp dig of Dean's chin. "Or so I heard."

"Kyle was snoring," Alicia says maliciously. "Do with that what you will."

Dean bursts into laughter, head dropping against his shoulder again before James solicits his attention, and Alicia sips from her cup before abruptly pulling her leg closer, tugging up the leg of her jeans and pulling out a familiar looking knife, pure white blade gleaming in the light of the fire.

"So," she says, putting down the cup and turning it. "Nice knife."

He nods agreement. "Ceramic coating over titanium alloy core."

"I noticed that," she agrees, flipping it one-handed and rolling the narrow hilt between her fingers with the ease of an expert, which she is. "Nice weight, too. And you can split a hair on this blade; I did three, one mine."

He considers asking who volunteered the other two and decides against it. Alicia continues flipping it idly, speeding and slowing the rotation while testing different holds on the hilt before catching it at different points along the blade. Amanda (looking queasy) always tells Alicia that she's going to lose a finger one day doing that, which is possible (as all things are) but unlikely, and in any case, Alicia always replies that she has ten and can afford the loss. This close, he can mark out the delicate tracery of scars that decorate both hands up to her wrists, some nearly invisible, others hard ridges when they required stitches to close. Gun and knife calluses overlap heavily, but she also carries on the thumb and first finger on both hands those associated with throwing knives, and the heavily muscled webbing between is an indicator of someone who's primary weapon isn't a gun but a blade.

Even Amanda has never quite gained this casual ease, but from the first time Alicia picked up a fighting knife, she's always been like this. For Alicia, it's both avocation and devotion; at this moment, it's also a very thorough demonstration (to him) that she's already examined it thoroughly and has taken it to the practice field to begin adapt her routines to its specific properties, discovering the best way to use it with her body.

"I gave one to Amanda as well," he says, picking up the cup and taking a drink to avoid examining while he feels defensive. "I should have done it before, so--you and she would best know how to use it. It's a necessary part of your arsenal, and I was negligent in providing you with--that part."

"Right," Alicia says, catching it between her forefinger and thumb just above the hilt and letting the blade slide between them until she's holding only the dangerously sharp tip before flipping it higher with a delighted smile, for Alicia also very much enjoys what she can do. "I saw hers at Insert Winter Holiday and didn't even steal it--though I could have after shot five of vodka and maple syrup--and regretted that I didn't all night until I saw this on the table the next morning when I got home."

He nods firmly, taking another drink.

"With a ribbon around the hilt," she adds, looking at him curiously as she flattens her palm for the next catch, letting the hilt land on the knuckles and roll down to the heel before closing her fingers around it.

"Now you're just showing off," he points out.

"Purple," she says in satisfaction. "No card, but I know everything and also, no one else can tie a bow a la Gordian knot for cutting it purposes." She turns it in admiration. "This thing can cut anything and I did test this a lot."

"Did you blood it yet?"

"First thing I did on the practice field," she confirms, turning her right hand so he can see the new line stretching from just below the knuckle on her thumb almost to the wrist, nearly healed. "Not on Kyle."

He makes a face. "Of course not: it's a new blade."

"Exactly." Sliding the knife back into its sheathe, she gives him a sunny smile. "Thank you."

He extends the cup to her. "You're welcome."

Taking it, she looks around them curiously. Despite being human and certainly far more familiar with the behavior of her own kind, the look on her face as she observes the people around them is much like the one he's felt on his own tonight.

Glancing up at him, she shrugs, nose wrinkling thoughtfully. "Trying to work out how to how make a defensive line around a group this big with no barriers to help out. What do you think?"

Castiel frowns, eyes drawn to the fire and measuring its length again, remembering what he'd heard Walter say about it: an engineering problem. To prevent unexpected collapse, he assumes, but that doesn't mean there isn't a way to do it deliberately. Even in its current form, however, it could be very useful.

"The fire would be adequate as a barrier in the short-term," he answers. "In an attack from the east it could be used as part of the perimeter while everyone is moved to a more defensible location."

"The nearest building is…" She lifts her head, finding the street and calculating the distance. "Two hundred fifty, give or take, but let's go with three to four hundred and be excited if the first door opens. First two on either side of the street aren't marked red, so they're structurally stable enough to get everyone in, but not so sure about defensibility. We should have checked that when they opened up the street."

They should have, he reflects in annoyance. "The first problem is how to move everyone quickly enough to minimize casualties."

"Gunshot, maybe?" she offers, hooking an arm around her knee. "Joe's on the northwest edge right now; quick shot in the air to get them moving--"

"We can't risk them responding in uncontrolled panic," he interrupts, thinking worriedly of Tony and the children cradled in his arms, the elderly and disabled whose wheelchairs and canes and crutches would make evacuation difficult at the best of times. Many of them are currently on the southern side of the bonfire and would be the first victims of a sudden rush, especially one from the northeast. "That will cause as many if not more injuries than those inflicted by their attackers. Nor can everyone run."

Looking into the darkness to the east, he frowns. All that open land and not a single barrier in sight on this side of the street, the piles of rubble from the destroyed buildings carefully placed for the convenience of cleared streets and easy passage and therefore useless for defense. If there was time, it would be relatively simple to move them, piled strategically to impede attackers and buying time to move everyone to a safer location, and if the piles were placed prudently, very few people would be needed to create a working perimeter and allow the people here time to escape. If he started now…two or three days from now, he might have an easily climbable barrier complete. There must be a better way to do this; humanity invented the internet, after all.

"If only that rubble was closer," he says, pointing toward the closest pile, "we could use it and the fire itself for the temporary perimeter line and buy time for a more controlled method of escape--"

"I see it," Alicia interrupts, nodding. "Okay, but what if--"

"Christ, you're kidding me." Castiel turns to see Dean watching them and wonders how long he's been listening. "This is a party. Where we're supposed to be having fun. Heard of it?"

"I'm having fun," Alicia answers defensively. "There are lots of kinds of fun. Some of us were talking about Ichabod's defenses during dinner with the patrol from the other towns who are here, working out how we'd handle this kind of group if there was an attack tonight. I'm guessing if we got enough warning, blocking off the street would work, but Syracuse, Main and Second are the only ones with limited entry and exit points with their alleys blocked. Here, though--" she waves around them, "--not nearly that simple."

"Huh." Dean looks between them for a moment, then at the crowd around them. "Yeah, you're right. We haven't done anything like this, and Cas's never even been to a big party before. Cas, how long will it take you to work a couple of options for a sitch like this?"

"What?" He looks between their expectant faces, wondering what he's missing.

"We'll get back to you," Dean tells Alicia, who half-turns at the sound of her name being called. Assured of her distraction, Castiel stares at Dean, who looks back with unconvincing bewilderment. "What? We're gonna protect people, we gotta figure this shit out."

"I wasn't taught this." Everything he knows came from others, taught to him to pass on to new hunters. He wonders vaguely if he should have already explained what his education had entailed, but Dean's expression flickers briefly, something looking back at him that he can't interpret.

"Neither was I," Dean points out. "Looks like we'll have to work it out ourselves. I'll give you a week, okay?"

"I have no idea how to do that."

"Then what the hell were you doing with Alicia just now?" Looking annoyed, Dean gestures in an arc around them. "Cas, I get it, you learned everything hunters would teach you, and great, you taught 'em here everything you knew. That's just the beginning, though. This is where you gotta learn shit maybe no one knows yet, and teach 'em how to do that, too."

"Dean, I was a foot soldier in the Host, which made me fit to learn to instruct hunters." At least, there was a certain amount of crossover, or he could pretend there was. "Not--"

"You're a hunter," Dean says flatly. "That's what you made yourself, and you're fit to do damn well anything you want to. Now how long?"

Castiel opens his mouth to answer--he doesn't know how to do that or how to even learn it--but the words drain away unspoken, others spilling out in their place. "I may need more than a week."

Dean grins at him and picks up his discarded cup. "How about two?"

"Cathy," Alicia says softly, and Castiel realizes she's gone still, cup forgotten in one hand. Following her gaze, Castiel sees a thin figure in an oversized coat hovering near the edge of the growing crowd, seemingly unaware of those around her. Even from here, he recognizes the fixed blankness in her eyes as she stares at the flames and thinks he knows what she's seeing right now. "Where the hell are…."

With a muffled curse, Alicia jumps to her feet as the woman begins to sway. As quickly and easily as another person crosses open ground, Alicia navigates the crowd, reaching the woman and steadying her just before her knees begin to buckle.

"Cathy," Dean murmurs. "Where have I heard--" He cuts himself off, blowing out a breath. "She lost her kid during the attack. How old--"

"Del," he answers. "She was two weeks old." Tomorrow, she would have been a month old, he realizes, watching Alicia wrap an arm around Cathy's slumped shoulders, nodding encouragingly as two other people hastily join them--her housemates, he assumes, who from their expressions didn't expect her reaction to seeing the bonfire.

Alicia says something to Cathy, waiting for her nod, before she and Cathy follow the other two toward another group nearby, settling with Cathy on the blankets.

"I forgot," Dean says abruptly, and Castiel turns to see him frowning at the fire as he takes another drink. "Alicia was here after the attack, wasn't she?"

"I sent her to assist Dolores." Her report--much like all of those who came to Ichabod for those two days--was stripped to essentials, a brief businesslike outline of her duties and observations, unlike Alicia's usual verbosity. Not entirely surprising: as an EMT who'd acted as Darryl's assistant and nurse, she'd been assigned to Dolores to help with the victims, and even the worst missions never returned with that many injuries.

"Did she…." Dean hesitates, and Castiel knows he's mentally reviewing every report, the familiar euphemisms that softened the starkness of what Chitaqua's soldiers witnessed of Ichabod's loss. "Cas, help me out here."

"It wasn't in her report." Amanda would have mentioned if she'd seen Alicia in the isolation rooms, which only means she didn't see her. If there was a need for volunteers to assist those in isolation, Alicia would have volunteered without a second thought. There were many in those rooms that would need mercy, and Alicia wouldn't need oversight, as Amanda did, to administer the shots. "She might have forgotten to mention that."

"Or didn't want to talk about it." Dean finishes his drink in a gulp and immediately refills the cup with a grim expression. "Or even think about it."

Castiel takes the cup and finishes half; that sounds depressingly relevant now that he has context. "Her team--"

"I think we both know who got in before they noticed something was wrong," Dean says in disgust, taking back the cup. "He's that kind of guy, no surprise there." After a moment, he grimaces. "Might not have helped. She's the other kind of talker. Amanda would have said something if she knew--who else…."

"Dolores," Castiel says, watching Alicia passing Cathy a cup and nodding encouragingly as she takes a sip, and tries to remember who else would know. "I'll speak to her tomorrow, and to Karl, her second; he was in charge of the isolation rooms while Dolores worked on the other patients."

"Good idea." Dean plays with the cup for a moment before cocking his head. "So, you wanna hang out here or check out what else everyone's doing tonight?"


Dean's restlessness increases as midnight drifts closer, and Castiel obediently follows him on a circuit of Fourth, now bustling with activity. They pause briefly here and there, long enough for Dean to smile, wave at someone he recognizes, engage in a snatch of conversation with a vendor while sampling a drink or survey a tray of goods and comment on the quality to the owners before they move on again. It's fascinating in a completely different way than he expected when he came here tonight, but the reason for the difference is elusive.

Beneath brightly-colored canopies, the vendors offer a wide variety of goods, some he's certain was never available to the general population outside some very specialized stores (or, on occasion, garage sales).

The more mundane merchandise on offer includes alcohol, the equipment to make alcohol, firearms (of course) and other types of weapons as well as ammunition, bags of snack foods (dried fruit and nuts: Dean purchases two), leather goods (he memorizes the name of the vendor), metalwork and jewelry (Dean immediately writes down their names and specialties), clothing, and a stunning variety of homespun fabrics of various types and colors with the option to have it turned into clothing made to order.

The more specialized goods include charms of all types, pre-packaged ingredients for DIY spellcasting (an interesting idea; everything you need in neatly labeled baggies), specialized equipment for the working witch or practitioner, various useful herbs for purposes both mystical and mundane, and everything in between. As Dean engages with a couple who seem to specialize in socks (he wonders what they might know about dryer elves), Castiel finds himself fascinated with a booth devoted to candles.

It's aweing purely on a visual level: portable shelves line all three sides of the booth and are filled with everything from tea candles small enough to fit inside a coffee cup to a set the size of truncated pillars, some with complicated etching in the wax, others smooth and glossy as if polished, and in every color in the rainbow.

"Anything specific?" a voice asks, sounding amused, and Castiel realizes he wandered much closer than he intended, attracted by the sense of muted purpose despite nothing on display showing anything but the most mundane of properties. Looking up, he sees the vendor, an African American woman in her late thirties, smiling at him. "Wendy, Noak," she adds, extending a hand, and startled, he stares at warily before tentatively shaking it, relieved there's no sigh of incipient hysteria.

"Castiel of Chitaqua," he answers politely, and her eyebrows rise curiously.

"Nice to meet you." She doesn't let go immediately, however, dark fingers firm as the amber eyes scan him thoughtfully. "Specialty?"

That's what he thought. "Yes."

"Thought so." Bending down, she removes a box from under the counter. A glimpse inside shows mounds of tissue-wrapped objects and the sense of power increases. Seeing his reaction, she looks pleased. "I don't keep everything out on the tables. Practitioner?"

"All of my existence," he agrees as she unwraps several, setting them between them for his perusal. Picking up one of the more esoteric models the size of his palm, colored in graduated shades of blue, he turns it in his hand, following the subtle sense of power tucked into each complex curve and identifying each individual property: patience, calm, serenity, and focus infusions on an earthy base, scented with mint. "This is interesting."

"I have a few practicing witches--other than Teresa--who don't have time to do everything themselves and so buy from me," she says, leaning an elbow on the counter. "Especially these days: outsourcing is where it's at."

"Not everyone has the natural talent for this kind of work." Any human can, with study, learn to use herbs for basic charms and spellwork, but very few can ever learn to sense their properties, much less isolate, condense, and infuse them into an object like this without degradation, especially in combination without losing individuality. "What did you study during your apprenticeship and where? I didn't think anyone still practiced the art of infusions at this level. At least, not in this country."

"Idaho, and the bare bones basics," she answers self-deprecatingly, long, beaded braids glinting in the Christmas lights strung across her booth. "Never got farther than basic charms, barely any active craft, but I did have some calling for herbal potions, though nothing special. Total hedgewitch. My teacher almost gave up until I started working with wax and stumbled across something I actually had a talent for. Limited field, but when you're the only one in it, that helps."

"Infusions may be passive, but they're still a very difficult craft to master and very few ever reach this level of skill." Regretfully, he sets the small candle back on the counter; the sense of calm and serenity are very pleasant, and he can imagine how it would feel when burned (not to mention the very pleasant scent). "Do you have a product list available? Charmed and mundane: clarity, focus, patience, inspiration, serenity, endurance, energy, and lemon, if possible. Something citrus, at any rate. I'm tired of the smell of bleach when cleaning the kitchen."

"I can make a list," she answers promptly. "I'll be here until the end of the week; my sister Lourdes is Noak's mayor, so there's the meeting plus afterparty. We're on southeast Second, Building C: electricity, toilets and a working kitchen, kind of. For when you make candles for Teresa of Ichabod, there are perks much better than you get for just being a mayor. Where do you want me to send it?"

"Third Street, northwestern corner. Or Alison and Teresa's building," he says, startled when she places the candle back in his hand and closes his fingers over it. "I don't have anything right now to pay for it."

"Bread on the water." She grins at him. "I also take commissions, but lead time is about two weeks for delivery to Ichabod." She gives him a thoughtful look. "I'm also known for my experimental work. I can't guarantee success, but that's the only time I charge."

"I'll keep that in mind." From the corner of his eye, he sees Dean waiting patiently. "I'll be in touch, probably after the meeting." Taking the box she finds under the counter, he carefully wraps the candle in paper and places it within before tucking it carefully into an internal pocket of his coat. "Thank you."

"Looking forward to hearing from you," she says sincerely, and joining Dean, he realizes he's rather looking forward to it as well.

Amanda tracks them down just after eleven--how, Castiel isn't entirely certain--looking amused as Dean charms another bottle of currant wine from one of the nearby vendors of alcoholic beverages before giving a brief report: all is well, and so far, nothing alarming from the still-arriving people.

Dean listens, but for some reason seems distracted, eyes flickering impatiently to the passing people with a faint frown, but halfway through Amanda's commentary on Laura's endless soliloquies at the loss of her potential orgasms ("She. Won't. Shut. Up. Can we send her on a special assignment? To anywhere not here?"), Dean abruptly straightens, yelling "Hey, wait!" as he eases between two of the vendors and back into the street.

Turning, Castiel watches his progress toward a small group of people he recognizes as members of Ichabod's patrol, stopping as a statuesque blonde turns around with a slow, pleased smile that matches the one that Dean gives her. Together, they move slightly to the side and immediately fall into what appears to be an utterly fascinating conversation.

"…Cas?"

He jerks his attention back to Amanda. "That's fine, yes. Is there anything else?"

"Nope, we're good." Leaning back against one of the support posts that once held a walkway roof, she crosses her arms. "I'll be staying at Dina's tonight after poker hijinks if you need to find me, and you know you're not being subtle here, right? Even a little."

He closes his eyes, wondering if it's possible he may actually miss when people avoided him unless they wanted to have sex or required drugs.

"The blonde's Vanessa, by the way," she continues, despite the fact he's certain he didn't ask and has no reason to care. "Thirty-one, boyfriend died a year and a half ago, no kids but wants them, got moved to patrol when Haruhi was recruited, still on a learning curve to do the job. She's not too bad," she adds thoughtfully as Dean's burst of laughter drags his attention back to the street, where Vanessa is beaming under the influence of Dean's undiluted attention. "Want me to take her out? I can make it look like an accident, no problem."

He jerks his gaze to Amanda, who looks back innocently.

"Friends," she drawls, "help you move bodies. Family gets rid of the bodies for you."

He considers family as he understands it: his brainwashed, tortured, hunted, and tried to kill him, made him participate in horrific game shows, attempted to tempt him to Lucifer's side, and also had sex with Dean while Dean was his charge in the back of the Impala in plain view of anyone with eyes, and he won't pretend not to know exactly who seduced whom that day.

Dean may have been right about the upgrade.

"I appreciate the thought," he says, ruthlessly suppressing the inappropriate quiver in his voice. "I can handle rivals for Dean's affection on my own, however."

"If you're sure." She sighs, pushing off the post and coming up beside him. "You know, I could just take the rest of the night instead of handing off to Kamal at midnight."

"I thought you were going to Dina's for poker and flirting with Laylah and her girlfriend?"

"Not until two, and anyway, Vera said something about checking out the official poker den, don't want her to--you know, go alone." She makes a face and sighs. "Or go not alone with anyone but me, so picking her up from admin at midnight, and God help anyone who gets in my way."

"Have you thought about--"

"Yeah," she interrupts moodily. "Take that as answer to anything you could add there."

"--telling her you won a copy of hippofucker?" he finishes, watching Dean gesticulate and the blonde woman laugh far too enthusiastically with an unnatural number of visible teeth. Annoyed with himself, he turns to face a startled-looking Amanda. "Vera will very likely volunteer to act as courier between Chitaqua and Ichabod for the next few weeks so she can become more familiar with the town as well as convey information and letters and that will require overnight visits. You could offer to read it to her in the evenings."

"We--have a courier?" she falters.

"We could," he says thoughtfully. "And now we do: power is useful for so many things."

A hand unexpectedly clamps down on his shoulder as Dean pokes his head between them, flushed and still grinning as if his conversation with Vanessa was the highlight of the evening's entertainment. "You done yet?" Castiel nods. "Awesome. Let's go."

He resists Dean's pull long enough to add, "Also, Vera can waltz, polka, tango, and samba."

Her mouth drops open. "What?"

"Friends help you try to win," he tells her over his shoulder as Dean (now snickering) tugs him away. "Family cheats to make sure you do."


Dean is maddeningly silent as they turn at the end of the street and unexpectedly starts toward the north. As they pass Fifth, Castiel notes that lights are already being added by one of Tony's crews in anticipation of future need, but for reasons that pass understanding, Dean doesn't stop until they reach Sixth.

"Okay, now where…." Dean trails off, eyes traveling upward to scan the buildings despite the darkness, and Castiel starts to ask what he's looking for before he makes a satisfied sound, hand tightening on Castiel's arm. "There we go. No questions, now come on."

Castiel manages to control himself for most of the block, not wondering what Dean seemed to find so interesting about his conversation with Vanessa, feeling no desire whatsoever to ask about it, and uninterested in why Dean seems to feel no particular desire to share what was so amusing that he laughed for a total of two minutes (accumulative). As they reach the next block, the hand around his arm slides to his wrist, tugging him onto the remains of the sidewalk, pace slowing significantly until they stops before one of the boarded-over doors.

Stepping back, Dean glances at the markings by the doorway--yellow-pink, outwardly structurally stable, less so within--before taking out a flashlight and pointing it at the boarded-over door. "Hey, do something about that, would you?"

He seriously considers telling Dean that it's blocked for a very good reason, then wonders why on earth he even wants to bother. It only takes a few seconds to pull the boards free of the frame, tossing them aside, and ignoring Dean's scowl, opens the door to check just inside for any dangers (collapse of upper floors, lack of floor altogether) before stepping back to let Dean enter and shutting the door behind them.

The bare wooden floor isn't in the best condition, every crack and grumble beneath their feet making him wonder nervously about the condition of any potential basement before his entire attention is on the stretch of stairs ascending into darkness, which don't become any more promising when illuminated by Dean's flashlight.

He stops, ignoring the increasingly determined tugs. "No."

"They're fine, Van double checked to be sure I read the damage reports right," Dean answers soothingly, leaving Castiel wondering blankly why on earth Dean would be reading random damage reports. "Now come on."

Dean's last pull is successful purely from his own curiosity regarding the casual use of 'Van'. By the time they've creaked their way halfway to the second floor, he's involved with not wondering when and how Dean met Vanessa, and how long they've known each other; the easy use of 'Van' seems to indicate a great deal of familiarity, however, especially if she's doing favors for him. He certainly never mentioned her before, which seems rather--

Castiel thinks, incredulous: what is wrong with me?

"Cas?"

"I thought she was a member of patrol, not city services." Dean blinks at him, eyebrows drawing together in confusion, and he belatedly realizes that context is both lacking and impossible to explain (even if he wanted to, which he doesn't). "Vanessa. Van, rather, which I assume is short for Vanessa. I could be mistaken."

"She used to be city before we got Haruhi," Dean answers distractedly as they reach the third floor. "She was helping Tony's crew check the buildings earlier on Fifth and she offered to run over here and see if this one had been re-marked since the last time they did a survey." He leads them around the splintered wood that when Castiel looks down surrounds a hole showing a shadowy portion of the floor below them. "I asked--hold up, a missing step coming up, just need to--" and Castiel jerks free of Dean just long enough to clamp a hand around his wrist as he starts to jump over the shattered remains of a significant amount of the next two stairs.

"How many more floors?"

"Five." Dean cocks his head, like he can't imagine why that's relevant. "Why?"

"You realize I can't actually fly anymore?" he asks, joining Dean on the step before jumping with him to the next and ignoring the low, warning groan of the wood on their landing with an effort. "If you fall, so will I, and both of us will be subject to the law of gravity."

Dean glances down at his captive wrist and raises an eyebrow.

"It was just a reminder," he says, scanning the stairs ahead of them for any more unfortunate structural weaknesses before continuing their ascent. "Let's go."


To Castiel's relief, the remaining stairs are still more or less undamaged, though every creak is in stereo and echoes through the entire building. Dean takes the lead once they reach the top floor, hunting through a narrow hall and two alarmingly dilapidated rooms before he stops short, turning the flashlight up at the ceiling, where Castiel sees a square access panel. Tucking the flashlight between his teeth, Dean jerks his head significantly before lacing his fingers together, which Castiel assumes means that it's his job to get it open.

The rusted catch on the access to the roof breaks with unsurprising ease, and pulling himself up, he scans the flat roof for any potential for instantly falling to their deaths. Other than a small building of unknown purpose (air conditioner or heaters, perhaps?), there's no sign of damage, and the building itself is fully intact, though in desperate need of repair and perhaps a coat or two of paint.

"Well?" Dean asks impatiently from below him. Climbing out, he rests his weight on the balls of his feet, listening for any sign of cracking or breaking, then slowly straightens, taking a careful step, then another. "You gonna help me--fuck it," drifts toward him, and Castiel hears a thump as Dean jumps, fingers clamped around the edge of the access hole.

Coming back, Castiel crouches to peer down at Dean hanging almost four feet from the floor below, boots dangling mid-air, a smile stretching across his face as Dean's accusing stare reminds him of the last time he found him hanging from a roof. At least this time, he's wearing shoes.

"I don't think," he says thoughtfully, "that tonight is a nice night for a broken leg."

The green eyes narrow at him, muscles tensing in his forearms as if he'll try and pull himself up by sheer will, and biting back another grin, Castiel shifts his balance and reaches down, pulling Dean effortlessly to the roof.

He waits patiently as Dean makes an elaborate show of straightening his coat before asking, "So what are we doing here?"

Dean looks around before abruptly turning Castiel in place and clamping a hand over his eyes. "Trust me, right?" he murmurs against Castiel's ear, chest suddenly pressed against his back, his other hand resting lightly against his hip under his coat as he turns him. "Ten steps straight ahead, then stop."

The gentle nudge against his back reminds him to move, and he counts each step, coming to a stop obediently when the hand on his hip tightens warningly, something solid brushing against his knees. "Okay, open your eyes."

When he does, he's standing inches from the three foot high ledge surrounding the edge of the roof.

"Come on," Dean says, bracing a hand on the ledge and boosting himself onto the concrete, finding his balance effortlessly before extending a hand. Startled, he take Dean's hand, joining him on the two foot wide ledge, and grinning, Dean cocks his head. "What do you think?"

Abruptly, Castiel realizes he's over a hundred feet above the earth and stills, breath trapped in his throat. Before him stretches eastern Ichabod and its fields of winter crops; beyond that are miles of uncultivated land broken by clumps of winter-bare trees and dips of greater darkness that might be lakes in the distance. Turning in a slow circle, he takes in the stretch of Creation in all its endless variation sleeping beneath a blanket of winter snow around them, the wind smelling of cold and a still-living world.

"It's beautiful," he breathes.

"So what do you get for the guy who doesn't want anything?" Dean murmurs, shoulder pressing against his own, vividly warm and alive. "This is the highest point in town except the old water tower, but ladder's rusted to hell in some spots, didn't want to risk it. I asked Alison about it when we were working out the details for tonight, and she found the survey and maps for me and said it was in the yellows, which I guess means it won't collapse or anything." He lets out a quiet laugh. "I gotta check this out during the day; I'm guessing from the look on your face, it's pretty awesome."

Tearing his gaze from a tiny copse of trees surrounding a frozen pond like a pool of ink, he glances at Dean in surprise. "You didn't come up here already?"

"Dude, it was your Christmas present; I wanted you to see it first." The satisfied grin changes as he looks around them. "Van said--there they are." Jumping down, he goes several feet away and bends down, retrieving a pile of folded blankets from the shadows and from somewhere in the depths of his coat he produces a bottle that Castiel recognizes as the currant wine that he acquired earlier. "Drinking on the roof. See any drawbacks to this plan?"

"No," he answers, unable to look away from that brilliant smile. "None at all."


Dean passes him the half-empty bottle before slumping back against the ledge. "How long until midnight?"

"Twenty minutes," he answers, demonstrating another almost useless ability retained; provided he's fully conscious and (mostly) in his right mind, he can always tell the relative time according to a given location's absolute position within spacetime. It's ridiculously simple; using the moment the universe came into being after the creation of Time and accounting for the varying rate of speed of passage in universal spacetime since then to find the relative time, he simply translates that to local (earth), calculates the earth's position in its revolution around the sun and its current position in its (very roughly) twenty-four hour rotation, graft the results onto time zones as established using the Greenwich standard, and gets the approximate time in Ichabod, Kansas within four decimal places.

(Almost useless, but not quite: Dean's inordinately impressed by this particular ability, so it's been upgraded in his personal rating system. Anything that gives Dean so much enjoyment must have some value, though in all honesty he has yet to think of any other circumstance that knowing the exact number of seconds since Time began would be at all useful. Unless Walter wants to build a primitive FTL drive, of course, then yes, the equation might be of some use, though navigating foldspace with the fifth-generation model would require some adjustments and a fairly radical approach to interpreting special relativity. Perhaps he should ask Tony about that; he has stated before that Walter likes long-term projects and this would definitely qualify.)

"Awesome," Dean says in satisfaction. "So could be wrong, but I think it's resolution time."

"Trade for a great deal more of this," Castiel answers, studying the anonymous brown bottle of currant wine before taking another drink. The two blankets folded beneath them make a very adequate cushion and excellent insulation against the cold concrete of the roof, and with their coats behind them, cushioning them from the unforgiving surface of the ledge, they share the other blankets to maximize heat retention. He's become an expert at maximizing heat retention, as even with Dean's weather stripping efforts, the cabin is cold, and leaving the electric heating units on all night is to be avoided at all costs. As he explained to Dean, the fire hazard is inarguable, so they must make due with blankets and proximity to assure adequate warmth. Hyperaware of the warm stretch of Dean's body against his side, he frantically tries to recall what they were talking about. "And discover where Alison gets her supply of coffee."

Dean nods as he takes the bottle back, but the green eyes are distant. Castiel glances toward the open access to the floor below and wonders if perhaps the request for the current time had a specific purpose. Reluctantly, he starts to straighten. "If we leave now, barring the potential collapse of the stairs, we should be able to return to the others before--"

Dean's arm snaps out across his chest, stopping him short. "Where," he asks, "do you think you're going?"

"Nowhere, obviously." Dean nods in satisfaction, withdrawing his arm as Castiel settles back again, as if by accident pressing his knee against Dean's and is rewarded with Dean's hand dropping to rest on it beneath the blanket. Satisfied, he reflects that successful tactical exercises are not limited to the battlefield. "Tomorrow, we'll come back here during daylight so you can enjoy the view as well."

"I'd like that. I never asked--what's it like anyway?" Dean asks suddenly. "Without light, I mean, seeing this?"

"Much like it is during the day, but without color." Dean raises his eyebrows in a silent request for elaboration. "In perfect dark, I wouldn’t be able to see any better than you do, but even now, there's enough light to assure adequate contrast to identify shapes in graduated shades of monochrome. So it's the equivalent of a very high-resolution black and white photograph, if you need a reference."

"Why no color?"

"The human eye can't distinguish color below a certain threshold of available light, and I'm still restricted by that." Since Dean came, he's spent far less time thinking of all his limitations in this form and more about what he can still do--for Dean, at his request, what he needs--but that doesn't mean he can explain it. He can try, though. "The physical limitations of my eye decides the amount and quality of the data provided to my visual cortex, which is also limited in what it can interpret from that, and there's always degradation. My true form doesn't have those kinds of limitations, however; it receives, processes, interprets, and records all the data available from the eye, and there's no organic degradation." He spares a quick look at Dean, who nods, waving the bottle for him to continue. "On a guess, my true form integrated with my nervous system well enough that it's receiving the data from the eye first, correcting it as much as possible from its own data, and then giving it to the visual cortex to deal with."

Dean takes a drink from the bottle before tapping it against his knee thoughtfully. "Your true form is acting like Photoshop?"

"Or Adobe Premiere," he agrees. "Same principles. The lack of color is due to the limitations of the data received from the eye in the first place. I suppose there's simply not enough color references to reliably upgrade, so it won't bother, but as long as there's enough light for any amount of contrast, it can correct that, though I haven't tested the exact amount."

"So you can see in the dark--pretty useful." Dean glances out at the landscape again before easing from his slump against the ledge, turning in place to give him the full benefit of his undivided attention (his hand, however, remains where it is, and all is well with the world indeed). "So what do you think of your first New Year's party? That wasn't also an orgy, I mean."

"Interesting." While his previous New Years' were indeed spent in sexual congress, it wasn't exactly in celebration of the date, so he can probably consider this his actual first. "Human customs are fascinating when observing from a more immediate perspective--" Dean coughs significantly in what sounds like 'bullshit'. Looping an arm around his knees, Castiel smiles at him. "Fun. That was the answer you were looking for, I assume?"

"Only if it's true."

He remembers Vera earlier in the evening, asking him about the celebrations he attended at Alpha, before coming to Chitaqua. Dean attended them, of course, and would often persuade or order Castiel to accompany him, but as Dean was usually quickly distracted by the attractions of potential sexual partners or his friends among the other hunters, there rarely if ever was any reason to linger after Dean's attention wandered. At the time, he was relieved that Dean never questioned him later on where he was or why he left; in time, however, he came to realize that Dean probably never noticed his absence.

Human gatherings were social events, and everyone has species in common if nothing else. While Castiel would occasionally spend time observing their interactions with each other, it quickly become a source of vague, unformed discomfort that even to himself he was unable to articulate. Far more practical to concentrate on fulfilling his purpose, what Dean meant him to do, than concern himself with what was beyond his understanding. Mortality didn't change that in any meaningful way other than that which involved sexual congress.

Now, however--he still isn't human, and he still lacks most of the most fundamental experiences that humanity shares, but since the Insert Winter Holiday You Celebrate at Chitaqua, he's become aware of something's changed. Dean's presence is part of it, of course; he's very personally motivated to retain his company and models his behavior to that end, but it's not an effort that he has to think about every minute, and the penalty for a mistake…Dean never seems to indicate any dissatisfaction in anything he says or does, in any case.

It was easy, he thinks, startled.

The mandatory social requirements, both at the party in Chitaqua and here, were far easier to fulfill than he expected, and not only because conversation often revolves around things he knows: fighting the supernatural, weaponry, religious iconography, mythical events, ritual magic, and the uses of various types of wards. Sometimes the discussions were about food--which he doesn't even like, though discussion of various desserts are becoming far more interesting than they used to be--adequate insulation, water purification, animal husbandry, the best times to plant wheat and corn, projected yields from the next harvest, and the interpersonal relationships of people that sometimes he not only knew but has had sexual relations with at least once.

It might also be, he thinks in surprise, that he wants to be here, and other people seem to want that, too.

"It is," he answers slowly and is rewarded with Dean's satisfied smile. "How long do these generally last?"

"It's barely started," Dean says enthusiastically. "We're still in the getting to know you phase, where everyone's eaten and drunk enough to feel comfortable talking to strangers and make friends with everyone else and being sober for midnight toasts and whatever. After midnight when the kids are put to bed, it'll be strip poker--hell, strip any-game they can use for an excuse--random acts of public affection anywhere there's shitty lighting, and drunken hookups like it's a goddamn sacrament."

"So not entirely unlike my previous experiences with New Years'." Dean seesaws the bottle. "Or from the bars I used to patronize when we needed information."

"Christ, all you know about people comes from Chitaqua, hunters, and bars. Which come to think," he concedes, "is pretty much mine, too. Came and went, no time for introductions, much less hanging out. Most of the time, even the people we helped couldn’t have picked me and Sam out of a crowd ten minutes later. Not that they had any reason to," he adds more quietly. "It was just a job, save a few people, helping out where we could."

"And now everyone who sees you knows that you're what hunts the monsters that hunt them." Dean's mouth quirks acknowledgement; he's a hunter, his victories counted in people saved and defeat in those lost. Saving the world he may believe is beyond his capabilities, but those here tonight, the residents of Ichabod, the members of Chitaqua, that's very different; they're people he knows, and he knows he can save them.

"Later tonight, you're gonna show me your new and improved poker game," Dean says, breaking into his thoughts. "With your poker face, we can clean out everyone. That's a lot of future brownies."

"Friends help you move bodies," he hears himself say into the comfortable silence for some reason. "Family gets rid of the bodies for you." Dean blinks at him, bottle frozen half-way to his mouth. "Something Amanda said. After she offered to kill Vanessa--Van, rather--for the sake of our continued domestic harmony."

Dean stares at him for a long moment, face blank, before he bursts into laughter. Reaching for the wine before Dean drops it, Castiel takes a drink. "I declined, of course. I can handle interlopers myself."

"Ritual combat, public sex, I remember," Dean says breathlessly, squeezing his knee before snatching the bottle from his hand and composing himself enough to take a long drink before handing it back. Wiping his mouth, he stifles another burst of hilarity when he looks at Castiel before saying, voice trembling, "You know Amanda's the one who introduced me to Van last time I was here? And sent the blankets with her earlier?" Snickering, he takes a deep breath, shaking his head. "I'm gonna kick her ass."

"Oh." He considers that as he takes another drink before passing it back to Dean, cold fingers brushing his when he takes the bottle. "Then--"

"Wait," Dean says suddenly. "When did she--oh, when I was talking to Van earlier? Huh." He takes another drink. "Didn't think you noticed."

Castiel freezes in his reach for the bottle. "Didn't think that I noticed you abruptly abandon us without explanation at the sight of a very attractive blonde woman with whom you conversed for eight minutes and twenty-three seconds, two minutes of which you spent laughing?" Dean's eyes widen and it occurs to him he did indeed say that out loud. Grabbing the bottle, he takes a drink in the hope that might--do something (rewind time, but no, it doesn't). "From what I understand, it's rude to--do that."

Bracing an elbow on his knee, Dean rests his chin on one hand and gives him his full and undivided attention. "Rude."

"Boorish," he says challengingly. "Churlish. Discourteous. Impolite. Inconsiderate. Loutish. Uncouth."

"Dude, you're slipping," Dean observes, absently stroking Castiel's knee in a way that's the opposite of soothing, fingers just approaching his inner thigh before retreating. "Only seven: I heard you can get to fifty without even trying."

"Are you enjoying yourself?" he asks in annoyance, but not enough to so much as shift his current position.

"German, starts with 's', give me a second," Dean says, then brightens. "Got it. Schadenfreude."

"I don't see--"

"Theodore," Dean interrupts, cocking his head, and yes, that. "So?"

That's unexpected. "Why? I've had sex with many people--"

"And that was the first time you ever had a problem admitting it." Dean shrugs, almost casually. "Just curious."

Oh. "Nothing terrible--"

"That much I kind of figured," Dean interrupts, and oh. Schadenfreude.

"And nothing particularly...." There's a lesson in this, he suspects, but what he has no idea. "He was my first. Sex partner."

For some reason, that makes Dean tense, though his expression remains the same. "And he left?"

"That would be the reason," he explains. "Why I seduced him, I mean. Or he seduced me. Though I suppose it could be considered a mutual endeavor."

Dean frowns. "What?"

Castiel sighs, playing with the bottle absently. "Despite what you might think, finding a sex partner when you don't know how to do that isn't easy," he starts. "Especially when over two-thirds of the potential candidates are terrified of you, you actively dislike seven-tenths of them, and that's only the ones you know well enough to dislike. And sexuality…." He really has no words for that.

Dean expression melts into sympathy, which he supposes could--somewhere--be considered an improvement. "Okay, that must have sucked."

"Theodore fulfilled my minimal requirements: living, breathing, willing, and planning to leave, in case experimentation ended in disaster," he continues and sees Dean's mouth twitch. "Finding out the willing part was simply good luck; before I could consider how to approach him--which admittedly could have taken years--he came to my cabin one evening. Apparently he'd heard me mention alcohol production and thought I'd be interested in exploring methodology, so wanted offer his knowledge for my edification."

"Not bad," Dean admits. "Gotta give him props for that one."

"As the only mention I'd made regarding alcohol production was mourning the lack of whiskey in our lives, I'd say so." Dean tips his head in amused agreement. "He ended up staying two weeks longer than he planned, taught me a great deal about how to make a staggering variety of alcoholic beverages, and it goes without saying, a great deal about sex."

"Stayed an extra two weeks, huh?" Dean's grin is becoming less convincing. "What, trying to convince you to run off with him?"

"Nothing like that," he replies. "That was the final date before formal training began, and he didn't want to join the militia but anticipated after leaving that regular sex would be somewhat rare in his life. He was a pleasant companion, and as I was still--uncertain with my body, even with Dean drilling me--he was perfectly willing to be the guinea pig, as he put it." He hesitates. "I also told him that there were rumors that there were other places--in the South--that he might find more palatable, and how he might find them."

"You told him about Alpha?"

"Not specifically," he admits. "But if he followed my instructions, it would take a concerted effort on his part to miss finding it. I don't know if he went there, if that's your next question. Gloria never mentioned anyone from Chitaqua showing up there, so I assume not."

Dean is quiet for a long time. "Did you want him to stay?"

"No. It never occurred to me to want him to." He wonders how to explain something he's not sure how to explain to himself. "It was--I was different then, I suppose. Training took most of my attention, and Bree soon after indicated interest in guiding my education as it pertained to women. Until today, I hadn't thought about him since he left."

"Good memory, though," Dean says, smiling at him. "I was hoping you had a few more of those in Chitaqua."

"It is, yes." He tilts his head. "I'd like you to introduce me to Van at the next opportunity."

Dean nods in surprise. "Sure, but I'm pretty sure she knows who you are."

"As your partner."

"She probably knows--"

"I'd prefer there be no ambiguity whatsoever," he interrupts. "Where is she now, do you think?"

Dean closes his eyes, laughing quietly. "Fine, I deserved that. Though right now--hey, how long until midnight?"

"Three minutes," he says, deciding the introduction can wait (not for long, however). "Are there any other New Year's traditions I should be aware of?"

Dean's grin returns at its full, baffling power. "We got food, check," he says, counting them off on his fingers, "drinking, check, dancing, check--me anyway--" he smirks before continuing, "--hanging out with people you know, check, sitting around a fire--no s'mores, but can't have everything--check, resolutions--"

"You didn't told me yours."

He makes a face. "Save the world?"

"Are resolutions usually expressed in the form of a question?"

"Recruit an army, join up with Alpha, save the world, have a sandwich and a milkshake, and sleep for a week," he says challengingly. "More immediately, get the water filter working, finish the mess, add a new room to the cabin, find out where the hell to get more cocoa, get laid…wait, you hear that?"

Castiel is still hearing 'get laid' on repeat when the dull roar he'd been subliminally aware of resolves into the sound of voices; it takes another few moments to realize that that they're counting.

Forty-nine, forty-eight, forty-seven--

"Forty-six," he says with them, Dean nodding encouragement. "What are they--"

"Counting down to the new year," Dean answers. "Forty-two, forty-one, forty, thirty-nine--dude, it's a countdown. You're supposed to count. Thirty-five, thirty-four…"

"Thirty-three," Castiel says obediently. "Thirty-two, thirty-one, thirty."

Twenty-nine, twenty-eight, twenty-seven… Now that he's listening, he wonders how he missed it before, a sound like thunder rolling across a clear sky, thousands of people gathered in celebration. …twenty-three, twenty-two… Twenty-fourteen is seconds from ending, but the world hasn't, not yet. Twenty, nineteen, eighteen….

"It's not over," he whispers. "We survived."

"Yeah, we did," Dean agrees, resting an arm around his shoulders. "Fourteen, thirteen, twelve, eleven, ten. One more resolution: we're going to keep doing it. Seven. Six." The voices grown even louder, but all he can hear is Dean. "Five. Four. Three."

"Two. One," he breathes with Dean as 2014 ends and 2015 begins, the new year stretching out before them, glittering with possibility, a blank page waiting for ink and the words they'll write to define it. Impossibly, the roar explodes into a cataclysm: screaming and laughter and shouting, an undifferentiated mass of sound that's exultation incarnate: We survived. We're going to keep doing it.

"We missed one," he hears Dean murmur, close enough that he can feel the warmth of his breath against his cheek. Turning his head, he stares into green eyes filled with light incandescent, cold fingers curving to cup his jaw. Castiel closes his eyes as Dean kisses him, losing himself in the taste of his mouth, the individual touch of each finger against his cheek, the first moments of the first day of a new year in a still-living world.

"Happy New Year," Dean breathes against his lips. "Remember how this works. Last resolution: we're gonna have a lot more of them, so pay attention."


--Day 151--

As he predicted, the serious gambling starts almost as soon as the midnight toasts are over, when everyone with better things to do (read: potentially get laid) wanders off to start making a serious effort in that direction, feeling the New Year high and ready to start it off making questionable decisions in a public setting. Also as predicted, any location with shitty lighting and adequate space is now grand central station to indulge those decisions made with alcoholic assistance, or at least the semi-plausible excuse of it.

Tradition, he told Cas, and as it turns out, he's a big fan of tradition; at this particular moment, in this particular goddamn alley, it just might be his favorite thing.

"Told you," he murmurs against Cas's lips as he pulls back dizzily to get a full breath, laughter bubbling up from somewhere deep in his chest. The slight difference in their heights is new and weirdly fascinating; he barely has to lean at all, and Cas is right there, mouth reddened and swollen, pale cheeks splashed with hot color. Cas makes an annoyed sound, and Dean presses a kiss against the corner of his mouth to quiet him, stroking his thumb over one flushed cheekbone before licking a slow line over his jaw, enjoying the prickling roughness against his tongue. Tilting Cas's head, he traces the shell of his ear with the tip of his tongue and feels Cas's full-body shiver down to his bones. "It's tradition."

Tipping his head back, Cas laughs breathlessly. "Thank you for supplementing my education on human custom," he says huskily, and Christ, that voice. "I appreciate enlightenment in whatever form it might take."

Dean chuckles, catching the lobe of his ear and bearing down, and Cas's breath catches, and beneath his coat, he feels Cas's fingers digging into his back. Satisfied, he sucks it, tongue soothing over the indentation of his teeth in the warm skin. "Anytime."

The alley's just dark enough that he can plausibly pretend they're alone right up until a moan from somewhere farther down the alley gets both their attention. Cas blinks, looking so startled that Dean starts to laugh before fingers tighten in his hair impatiently, just enough to sting, and Cas's tongue makes him forget everything but the impossible heat of his mouth, the length of warm body pressed against him, Jesus, the sounds: wet and eager.

He wants all of them: the way Cas catches his breath when Dean does something he likes and the low, dark sound that vibrates against Dean's lips when he does something Cas really likes and all the ones between. Cas's poker face is fucking amazing, but he was right about where Cas's tells come out; years of being an angel wearing a human body might have taught him to control his expression, but he's had a lot less time actually living in one to figure out how to control it. Then again, maybe he never thought he needed to; when it comes to sex, showing what you want, what you like, is pretty much a feature, and Dean has visual evidence that Cas during sex is really okay with sharing that information as much as possible.

(He wonders if Theodore taught him that, and Jesus Christ, what's wrong with him?)

He hears himself growl, easing a protective hand behind Cas's head before shoving him flat against the brick, greedily swallowing the startled gasp and still wanting more. Biting Cas's lip, he ducks his head to suck a kiss just below his jaw, tilting Cas's head back to reveal the long stretch of his throat and trailing down the cool skin until he can feel Cas's pulse throbbing headily against his lips. Cas's breathing speeds up as he licks over it, feeling it jump against his tongue before sinking his teeth into the thin skin, and Cas stops breathing altogether, going still and quiet, and what do you know, Dean likes that, too. He likes it even better when he sucks a kiss into the wet skin and feels Cas's low moan vibrating against his lips, a slur of sound that might be his name. Pulling back, he surveys the darkening blotch, thumb tracing over the indentations of his teeth as he slides his tongue into the drugging heat of Cas's mouth.

It's like being a teenager again, but not like he was, like he remembers it being: moving and school and hunting and taking care of Sam meant when he hit puberty, he already knew taking it slow would mean not getting anywhere at all. He doesn't regret it, never has, but he's not entirely sorry Cas thought he needed--whatever the hell they're doing--and not just because that might have been kind of true.

(He's not apprehensive, exactly; that's not the right word.)

Cas's partners are double digit at least (and in multiples), and he lost count of his own years ago, when he realized what those kinds of numbers probably meant for his future. Cas is his best friend and knows him better than anyone but Sam ever could or will, but that's a two edged sword. Ideally, learning the less than positive shit should come after your partner's invested enough not to run away screaming (to get a restraining order, a license for a gun, and a new home security system and not necessarily in that order: that's called being realistic). Sure, there's a different standard when it comes to another hunter, and even that one doesn't apply when it comes to Cas, but that's the entire goddamn problem.

If this fails, it won't be because he's a hunter, was a demon, was responsible for bringing on the Apocalypse, or for his felony indictments under multiple aliases and also being legally dead. Here, he's legally alive at least, though wanted for faking his own death, along every crime in existence and possibly some they invented just for him.

(In no other world would one or more of those individually not be dealbreakers; this one, he can also be a joint homeowner with a steady job, a significant other, friends with which to eat barbecue, and what is technically a really big lawn that needs mowing (not by him, but whatever). It occurs to him that for all intents and purposes, he's now officially living the American Dream.)

Pulling back to get a full breath, Dean makes himself face reality (and not wonder whether they should get a dog: why not?).

If this fails, it'll be because he's shitty at being a partner, and he doesn't even have the advantage of being an awesome father figure to Cas's semi-existent kid to compensate because Vera and Joe got dibs on Jeremy before he even existed here, fuck his life. (He won't deny the sex helped (a lot), but he's pretty sure Ben was what kept Lisa from kicking him out on his ass one month in.) Worse, he's at a disadvantage when it comes to sex, and it's not like he's not willing to catch up (soon, please God), but that means that all he's got going for him is that Cas knows less than he does about relationships and may not notice if he's bad at it (read: when and how bad: let's be realistic here), and Christ that's a shitty thing to admit you're grateful for, but he really doesn't care.

(If Sam didn't just facepalm and mutter something about Dean's standards and emotional maturity, he'll be really goddamn surprised. He hopes Sam was holding a pencil or something when he did it, though; payback's a bitch, bitch, he's being realistic here.)

On the other hand, if he can manage to make a disturbing number of people (and a few towns, Jesus Christ) believe he's a competent leader, he can pull off 'partner'. What he needs here is--

"Why," Cas murmurs, thumb sliding down his temple, "are you looking at the wall like that?"

Dean remembers the Merlin and Snuggie conversations and considers whether he actually wants to know (answer: hell yes). "How am I looking at it?"

"As if you're planning best how to destroy it and salt the earth on which it stood should it defy your will," he answers promptly, tugging Dean closer until he can feel the warm puff of Cas's breath against his lips. "If you're finished plotting its untimely demise, your attention would be appreciated."

Dean's helpless grin continues through the kiss, shoving up the back of Cas's sweater and thermal and t-shirt (three layers, Jesus) to touch skin and suddenly nothing else matters but getting more of it and now.

Before he can start working in that direction (or remember how to care about the subzero temperature since being in a public alley with an unknown number of people stopped being a dealbreaker like four goddamn days ago; why the hell aren't they at Alison's again?), Cas jerks his gaze toward the mouth of the alley. Dean has just enough to wonder what the hell (not like Cas has a problem with public performances) when he hears someone saying, "Dean? Cas? We got everything," and remembers why they're in this alley and not at Alison's wearing a lot less clothes. He checked out the satisfactory state of the poker games, sent Vera and Amanda to the jeep to get a few bottles of Eldritch Horror and some ammunition, at which time he noticed there was an alley and since they were waiting anyway….yeah.

The only thing he doesn't know is why the fuck he cared about poker in the first place. Leave the freezing roof, go back to Alison's, that's all he had to do, and yet, here they are.

(Drop the sweatshirt on the floor: he's seeing a pattern here.)

"Dean?" A little closer now, and she's enjoying herself, he can tell. "Cas? Anytime now: time's a-wasting, and cocoa could be going to bed with its new owners even as we speak."

"If we don't answer…." He trails off, frowning down the alley at the next, much closer repetition of their names from the street, now hearing the unmistakable laughter in her voice. "I'm gonna get her for this."

"Technically speaking," Cas says, brushing his lips against Dean's, a tease, "she's following your orders at the moment."

Amanda's voice comes again, close enough that she must've just reached the mouth of the alley and they got maybe fifteen seconds before she finds them. Fuck it, Amanda is gonna find them, but she hasn't yet.

"Come here." Cupping Cas's face, he tugs him into a kiss, memorizing the shape of his smile, laughing into his mouth when Cas's hands slide into the back pockets of his jeans and pull him in. When Amanda finds them, her laughter echoing down the alley and getting the attention of probably everyone around them, he's startled to realize he forgot all about her.


Dean's gotta admit, he's been waiting for this since he sat Cas down with a pack of cards and explained how to really play poker.

In retrospect, it shouldn't have surprised him that Cas was shitty at it, not if he learned it while still an angel. While craps is you against the odds, poker is you against people, and Cas was probably still pretty sketchy on even being people himself back then, much less manipulating them for other than professional (ie: the Host's) gain.

Unexpected benefit of two years and change of mortality and living in Chitaqua: Cas got over it, got a taste for it, and got really, really good at it. Translating that (kind of terrifying) skill to poker wasn't hard once Dean explained that poker wasn't about playing the hand you're given, but playing everyone at the table so they won't play theirs.

"Even if you cheat, the odds are always gonna be against you," he explained, watching approvingly as Cas shuffled and stacked the deck at just barely below a blur so as not to incite suspicious (read: smart) people to call cheating. "So you don't try to win with your hand; you just make sure everyone else thinks they're gonna lose with theirs."

Cas paused his shuffling, and he could almost see the click of enlightenment. "Oh."

"Deal," Dean told him with a grin. "And I'll show you how you make them think just that."

Slumped into the warm comfort of a broken-down sofa in one of the former bank offices, he watches in drowsy satisfaction as Cas calls the hand, laying his cards out with methodical precision on the battered remains of what he assumes was a kitchen table before it lost all its legs. The disbelieving eyes of the other seven players are just icing: delicious, delicious icing.

"I think," Cas says after a perfectly timed pause, "that this hand is mine."

"I don't believe this," Vera says, throwing down her cards as Cas collects his winnings, Anyi and Dina morosely consider their remaining stakes, and Amanda wisely realizing that keeping her silence on Cas's improved poker game (and a surprisingly good bid, by the way, though not better than Joe's) definitely won her hippofucker's unfinished adventures. "What the hell did you teach him?"

"Your free dimebag days are done," he answers, admitting nothing, but the pile on the floor beside Cas probably speaks for itself. Among the spoils are four bottles of currant wine, two of whiskey, a bottle of vanilla, three pairs of socks (one in its original packaging), two pounds of cheese, a jar of strawberry preserves, a double knit wool blanket, two lightbulbs in their original packaging (he checked), and to top it off, two tins of cocoa. Leaning against the couch between Dean's legs, Cas tips his head back, solemn expression utterly perfect, and it's a physical effort not to kiss him. "Let's see what we got this time."

Tea, nice; three and a half pounds of coffee, excellent; you really can't go wrong with more socks, cool--oh. "Hold up." Bracing a hand on Cas's shoulder, he points. "What's under those socks?"

Before his disbelieving eyes, Cas unearths a Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, unopened, in packaging not unlike something a lot less than two years old and acquired before the borders closed. On closer inspection, that's exactly what it is.

"Holy shit," he breathes, ignoring the glares of the other players as he reverently unwraps it and finds two perfect cups inside, snug in their individual wrappers as the heartbreakingly delicious smell of chemically-created chocolate and peanut butter fills the air. Aware of Cas's curious expression, he grins. "Dude, life just got like, ten times more awesome. You can stop now," he adds after a quick check of their booty, magnanimous in victory. "I think we're good."

"You get there's literally nothing about using your boyfriend to get you shit that isn't wrong," Vera says bitterly as Cas eases their winnings over and climbs onto the couch beside him while Kara, one of Amanda's students, begins to deal a new hand with a renewed spirit of hope. "Nothing," she repeats, picking up her cards mutinously.

"Except the delicious peanut butter cup results; if that's wrong, I don't wanna be right." Taking a bite, he tries not to moan: fuck, he missed processed sugar and artificial flavoring in delicious candy form. Grinning at Cas's bewildered expression, he holds out the other half. "Try it. Depressingly, you'll like it, and we're probably never getting more of it, so enjoy it while it lasts."

Ignoring Cas's suspicious look, he sits up enough to push it between Cas's parted lips, knowing it's a mistake and unable to pretend to care when he sees the look on Cas's face.

It's only Vera's "Seriously?" that tells him he's been staring way too long, but Cas's blissful expression isn't something he sees enough to want to miss even once. Before he can think better of it, Dean wipes his thumb over the smudge of chocolate at corner of his mouth and licks it clean, which is probably--definitely--really goddamn something.

"Well?" If his voice cracks, whatever.

Cas's eyes fix on the second cup for a long, acquisitive moment before darting to Dean's face, and that's all the warning Dean gets on what other useful lessons Dean's taught him.

"Please," dragged out like whiskey over gravel, and Dean's breaking the second one in half in a daze, unable to imagine looking away when Cas takes it from his fingers with his goddamn teeth.

"Again," Vera states at some point. "Seriously?"

"Don't say it," Cas murmurs before he can open his mouth and point out the location of Amanda and how orgasms help mood because science. "Think of her expression when you tell her and Joe they're in charge of Chitaqua for a week."

Actually, that helps, yeah. "Fine," he says, squeezing Cas's knee before sinking back into the couch and finishing his half of the last peanut butter cup he may ever eat.

Tipping his head back, Dean lets the ongoing conversations wash through him, comfortable enough to fight to the death if someone tries to make him move. If his slump is getting more toward Cas, it's just because he's warm, a human-shaped space heater that makes him consider the feasibility of crawling into Cas's lap and bury his face against his neck for completely platonic warmth-related purposes (and he hopes Vera asks so he can give that exact answer).

Then someone is touching his face with fucking frozen fingers, the sharp chill jerking him upright, blinking uncertainly. He reaches up to push it away, but his hand's caught in a preternatural grip--hey Cas--and then abruptly he's in a sitting position with no clear idea how he got there before Cas pulls him to his feet. It's only because he's standing right there that Dean doesn't fall right over, black spots dancing before his eyes for a long moment before they clear and vaguely, he doesn't think that's a good sign.

"We have an early morning," Cas announces lazily to the room at large, getting to his feet and somehow bringing Dean with him, arm sliding around his waist before he's awake enough to stumble. "Before we go--Vera, if you have a minute? I'd like to go over a few things."

At her nod, Cas leads Dean to a nearby corner, where Dean leans gratefully against the wall as normally as possible, wondering what the hell is wrong with him (honest to God, if this is a fever, he's rounding up every brownie on the planet and introducing them to the words 'extinction event').

"How are you feeling?" Cas braces a hand just above Dean's shoulder, screening him from the rest of the room as the long fingers touch his forehead, blue eyes unfocusing for a moment. "Headache, chills--"

"I’m fine," he answers irritably, deciding he will be by sheer will if it kills him. "Just been a long day."

"I agree." One corner of his mouth quirks mischievously as he drops his hand. "It's just under three digits," he adds reassuringly. "You're simply overtired, which isn't surprising, as you didn't sleep much last night."

A fever at least would explain why his face feels hot; all that happened last night was some necessary late-night plumbing and a little fully-clothed making out after a shitty nightmare before dragging his ass out of bed an unholy two hours before dawn. For the last four nights, true, but whatever.

Vera materializes beside Cas, looking Dean over like he's a roast that she can't tell has finished cooking or not. To his horror, she actually starts to check his temperature before Cas clears his throat, but even so, he can see her fighting a smile.

"I warned you to take it easy tonight," she says smugly. "It takes a while to get back your endurance--"

"Blah blah and oh, right, blah," he interrupts, in case she doesn't get how little he cares.

Annoyingly, her smile widens. "Get some sleep like a good boy and you'll be fine."

"It's a party!" he protests, which is immediately followed by a jaw-cracking yawn. Fuck his life. "I don't believe this."

"We'll be at Alison's tonight," Cas tells Vera. "You and Joseph are in command until dawn. Is there anything--"

"I'm standing right here," Dean reminds them grimly, punctuated with another goddamn yawn, which makes Vera fucking laugh, because she's like that. "We got that meeting--"

"Vera and Joseph can handle it," Cas interrupts, rolling his eyes. "We'll only be on the other side of Main if we're needed."

"I'll check in afterward," she assures them. "Verbal report okay?"

He's tempted to tell her there's a five page minimum, but he's not actually sure where Alison keeps her laptop or notebooks and doesn't want to. "Fine. Tell Alison…" that he's being put to bed like a two year old; yeah, that'll inspire confidence.

"Don't worry; she mentioned earlier that you looked a little flushed and wanted me to remind you to take care of yourself," Vera assures him, to his outrage. "Yeah, she said that'd annoy you. She won't mind at all. Anything else?"

"Find out who's taking over for Alison; probably Claudia, but double check. Also, find out if Ichabod needs any help with clean-up or their visitors tomorrow." He fights down another yawn, trying to think of anything else he should add here. "Full meeting an hour before noon, and sex, drugs, and rock n'roll won't be considered a good excuse to be late."

"Got it." Vera waits for his nod before skipping back a step, giving them a cheerful wave as she returns to the game. With a sigh, Dean pushes off the wall--no black spots this time--and gets Cas's sleeve to haul him out the doorway and through the gambling lobby to the double doors that lead outside.

The hit of cold air helps clear his head a little; blinking, he takes in the number of people filling Third Street and glances at Cas. The memory of what happened the last time Cas was in a crowd in the street--the memory how that guy looked at him--burns away the remaining drowsiness as they start toward the western side of the street.

"Christ," he mutters, just avoiding a group hurrying by that seems to consist of frazzled-looking parents and sleepy kids, turning slightly to watch them take the alley exit to Fourth.

"Tony will probably need to open Fifth soon," Cas observes, sliding out of the way of a couple of way too drunk women blocking traffic who seriously need to get a room already and no, he's not looking, because he's not that kind of guy and Cas is right here. Not looking much. "If he hasn't already, that is."

"Open Fifth?" Looking around again, he frowns. "About how many people now? Ballpark?"

"Nine and three quarters thousand people," Cas answers, moving Dean and himself out of the way of another tired-looking group. "Possibly ten, excluding the children currently in the daycare of course."

"You're kidding." Startled, he almost stumbles into a guy juggling three plastic cups who looks at them in surprise before focusing on Cas, and hell no. Muttering an apology, he closes a hand over Cas's wrist and tugs him onto the sidewalk and speeds up their pace until they reach the faded orange and white stripped roadblocks spaced along the width of the western side of the street. Waving at one of Tony's people and the patrol team, on duty for guest-wrangling purposes (a thankless job if there ever was one from the looks of the cranky looking people coming in) Dean waits for the nod of recognition before going around the roadblock and starting the cold, dark trek toward Main.

"Okay," he says as the noise noticeably drops in proportion to the lack of light, reluctantly letting go of Cas's wrist and shoving his hands in his pockets. "Say that again?"

"Nine and a three-quarters to ten thousand people, excluding children under twelve," Cas repeats obediently. "On our way back from Sixth, I noted that Fifth had several stray groups and Fourth was becoming more crowded. Despite that, Third is still two-thirds full from street occupation."

Dean stares at his profile. "You do this for fun, don't you?"

"Your expression at the meeting earlier was very funny when I elucidated on street capacity," Cas confirms. "I've paid attention in anticipation of you asking so I could see it again." He flickers a glance at Dean, blue eyes bright. "Do you want the rest?"

Christ. "Impress me."

"Fourth has no publicly accessible buildings--though I doubt that's stopped anyone who wanted to get out of the cold or desired privacy--but does have the attraction of a bonfire and most of the vendors and alcohol, so it should be more attractive than Third if one wants to be outside right now. As Third still has a large number of people in the streets despite the lack of amenities, that means the publicly-accessible buildings are almost full and probably all of the others that aren't actively falling down and that Fourth is close to or has reached maximum capacity in regard to human comfort levels regarding personal space. Without an exact headcount, I can't be certain of the numbers, but human behavior when it comes to space is very predictable, so I can make an estimate."

Before he can pretend he's not impressed (or wonder uneasily if that's supposed to be hot), he's interrupted by another goddamn yawn and seriously? "Ugh. What the hell?"

"If it's any consolation," Cas says as Main Street's roadblocks come into view, "I nearly fell asleep with you on the couch before I realized what was happening."

Dean starts to say it is--it's not like Cas is getting any more sleep than he is--when it hits him; Cas really isn't getting more sleep than he is. Literally. "Because you're up with me every night."

"It's like watching late night network television when one lacks basic cable," Cas muses. "Without commercial interruption, and realizing that you miss that very, very much. While I never had any desire to buy a Swiffle or needed super-absorbent sanity products, it was interesting to watch someone being unnaturally enthusiastic about the ability of a tampon to absorb a cup of blue liquid while never actually stating why one would have excess blue liquid in need of being absorbed." He makes a face. "Google was more forthcoming on the actual purpose, and the sheer number of inaccuracies…. For one, the so-called liquid it's supposed to absorb is actually--"

"Don't want to know and wait, you're saying I'm boring?" The look on Cas's face says he walked right into that one, and fights back a snarl: time to return to the goddamn subject. "Like I was saying, you don't have to stay up with me--except right, you actually do, don't you?" Cas hesitates, and yeah, that's what he thought. "Like almost falling asleep back there. It's not just--an urge or whatever it was before we redid the wards on the cabin. You have to."

Cas makes a face. "I wouldn't say 'have to' so much as 'highly recommended'. Then again, I haven't been terribly interested in testing it, since the company certainly provides motivation to--"

"Cas."

"I also have to eat and drink, breathe, sleep, and regularly excrete waste," Cas says, nose wrinkling reflexively on the last, because he's just still not over that. "None of those things are or ever have been under my control since I became mortal, so why you think this--of all things--should be an issue worthy of discussion escapes me."

"Maybe those are normal and me doing--that--to you isn't!"

"The human body isn't normal to me, for value of normal when my incorporeal form is the only standard by which I have to judge," Cas answers evenly, but he winces anyway; he really could have put that better. "If you wish, I can test it when we return to Chitaqua, but it's not particularly high on my priority list at the moment. In any case, there are some advantages, not least of which is that you're now unable to surreptitiously leave the camp alone without my knowledge while I'm sleeping. Which your history indicates is a genuine concern."

Dean forces himself to smile as they reach the roadblock, waving to those on duty, who are bundled in coats and looking miserable as they wave forlornly back. As soon as they're past them, he starts to pick up where they left off and belatedly realizes something else. "You knew something was different now, though." Cas's expression says yeah, he did. "When were you gonna get around to telling me?"

He regrets it the minute he says it; Cas tenses so fast that Dean can almost hear the muscles snap as Cas's spine redefines 'straight' for the masses (read: Dean). Sure, it may be invisible to anyone else, but he can see it and knows exactly what it means.

"I mean," he corrects himself--way too late, yeah, but he's hoping Cas will grade for effort, "I was just wondering when you found out," Oh God, no, not better. "Look, I wasn't saying you were hiding it--"

"My relief can't be measured by any known metric, being beyond human comprehension," Cas says in his critically acclaimed performance of 'guy who's relieved', "but take as a given that it can only be expressed on a quantum scale."

It occurs to him at this moment that if nothing else, Cas has really raised his standards when it comes to arguments. Shouting, screaming, slamming doors, punching walls, stomping around with mandatory profanity is for amateurs. As far as he's concerned, if you're pissed enough to need to express it, you should put some effort in it, challenge yourself a little, multitask that shit and educate you audience while you're at it. If you can't do it with obscure historical references, math from the future, King James, graph theory, or physics (sometimes in combination), you just aren't trying.

(Quantum, for those who don't live like this (sometimes, he wonders what that's like), is basically 'small as you can get and still exist'. Also, there are quarks named 'top' and 'bottom', and he's still trying to work out if Cas was just sharing information so Dean can ace the next theoretical physics exam that comes his way or trying a surprisingly original pick-up line; it could go either way.)

So maybe he should just ask the only question he actually cares about already and get this over with (that way, he also doesn't have to admit he'd kill that fucking test). "It doesn't bother you?"

Cas makes him wait until the porch steps of Alison's building come into view before gracing Dean with his attention. "No."

"Okay." He considers leaving it at that, but-- "You get that was months ago, right?"

"What?"

"Leaving the camp while you were asleep." Jogging up the stairs, he opens the door and steps over the salt line, waiting for Cas to come inside before shutting it firmly behind him and herding him toward the hall and their room. "Three times, Cas, almost five months ago. Get over it already."

When Cas flips on the lights to their room, he makes a point of looking back just so Dean can see him roll his eyes in eloquent acknowledgment he just dodged one hell of a bullet, and he grins back, satisfied.

Yawning, Dean pulls off his coat and tosses it toward the chair before dropping on the bed and gets as far as thinking about undressing before giving up and falling back onto the unbelievable comfort of the mattress. Stretching, he yawns again, not fighting it anymore, because yeah, he's exhausted, but it's the good kind, the kind where there's a reason for it that's not 'because goddamn fever'. Vaguely, he hopes that Vera or Amanda gets their gambling spoils for them; maybe a tin of cocoa could be sacrificed for this mattress.

He's mostly drifting on a sea of sleepy procrastination when a thump penetrates, waking him up enough to remind him that sleeping in his clothes is fine but he's got to at least remove his boots. Sighing, he pushes up on an elbow just in time to see Cas peeling off his thermal shirt, leaving him in only a t-shirt, and stops short.

The thing is, Cas wasn't entirely wrong; it's just the word he was looking for wasn't 'apprehensive'. He's not apprehensive, but if he had a gun to his head, he'd admit that if a word was really needed here (he doesn't think so, but whatever), he'd go with something closer to 'surprised', and for the record, he wouldn't mind a few more like this one. Apprehensive, fuck that, but if there were two guns (and he was unarmed, tied to a chair, and someone had a gun to Cas's head as well), another word he wouldn't argue with is 'adjusting'.

Adjusting: totally different thing.

When he looks at Cas now--which even he's got to admit he was doing way more than any reasonable explanation could cover before (that's why he had several of 'em just in case)--he's adjusting to the fact that he does it (and enjoys it) for several reasons. Adjustment takes repetition, so to do this right, he's looking (and enjoying) a lot and by that he means 'all the time'. Especially times like this.

Settling back, he watches Cas reach for the hem of the t-shirt, skimming it over his head along with the almost-normal he wears for human consumption, all the ways that he's learned to pass for human on a glance discarded with the thin cotton he folds over the back of the chair. Straightening, he tips his head back with an abbreviated shrug like he's shaking free of public Cas before reaching back to rub the back of his neck, head bent forward and face hidden behind a fall of dark hair. It's always cool to watch the transition, Cas going from a visitor in a too-small human-suit to living inside his skin.

He can't pick out most of the differences anymore, he's too used to them, but the energy is unmistakable, unfolding itself from wherever Cas hides it in plain sight and rushing along every muscle like live current after the flick of a switch. It took him a while to realize the most anyone else ever saw was the barest edges of it, restlessness, fidgeting, Cas unable to keep still like a hyperactive toddler on a two day sugar rush and no, no, it's not like that. That's like a shock of static when you rub your feet against the rug and missing the contained nuclear detonation in progress a few feet away.

Adjustment: Dean can now fully appreciate the view--what did Cas call it?--right, on the aesthetic level. That would be really fucking good, if anyone asks, and if they do, he'd have to wonder what the fuck is wrong with their eyes because come on. Months of regular, enforced eating, and Cas has officially escaped 'gaunt'--a good look for anyone and Cas does amazing things with it--and almost radiates good health, sharp bones less prominent, softened, drawing attention to the stretch of defined muscle across his back and arms. Taking the scenic route downward, Dean notes the narrow waist and the sharp bones of his hips where the denim's clinging for dear life--that should be illegal outside controlled conditions, Jesus--the long thighs hidden by the too-large jeans down to the bare feet peering out from the white-frayed hem.

Dropping into a boneless, soundless crouch, Cas unzips his bag, balanced on the balls of his feet so effortlessly it looks like he could do it forever (Dean tried that, one minute, maybe two, before he fell over). Finding the t-shirt and sweatpants on the first try and setting them on the chair, he zips the bag back up before smoothly straightening, and Dean's enjoying the show so much that it doesn't hit him what's coming until Cas unbuttons his jeans one-handed and they crumple to the floor.

Adjustment is awesome, he thinks in the tiny corner of his mind not otherwise occupied with real life in slow-motion as Cas slides the thermals down his legs in the time it takes at least one major civilization to rise and fall. Dean's a guy and checking out another guy's dick comes standard (if it's there, why not), but it's one thing to take it in for vague compare and contrast purposes (mostly) and a really different thing to do it with the intention of personally getting acquainted with it (and adding a little realism to certain shower-related activities, just to check for any unforeseen complications for dealing with purposes. He's glad to report there have been none, but it never hurts to be sure. Repetition is useful like that).

The faded grey boxer-briefs, stretched elastic hanging below Cas's hips (he assumes magic is all that's keeping them there: evil magic) are too loose to do anything but tease, but body memory helpfully replays the feel of Cas's cock rubbing against his own (because it's sadistic like that) and there we go.

You're curious, Cas told him on Christmas Eve, and that was true, a lot like snow isn't known to be very warm. Now--now he may need Cas's mental thesaurus to give him the word for this, because he's kind of tapped for vocabulary and education is never wasted. Apprehension, no: anticipation, fuck yeah, building more every day, thinking about what he knows in theory and what he can guess, and there's nothing he doesn't want to try at least once (and most he already knows he'll like).

(The memory of that casual strength, I have no objection to touching you, the fingers tight around his wrists, guiding them to the hem of his shirts, Take them off for me, the way Cas looked at him. He wanted Cas to look at him like he looked at people that he wanted, but pushed into the couch by the weight of Cas's body, he learned just how wrong he was; he wants how Cas looked at him that night, like Dean was the only thing he wanted, that he'd ever want.)

As Cas slides into his sweatpants in a single efficient movement, Dean drops (hopefully soundlessly) back onto the bed, because the line between teasing himself and torture is becoming narrower by the day. Closing his eyes, he takes a deep breath, already knowing it's too late to try and will his cock into giving the fuck up; there's a reason the only time he thinks of Christmas Eve is when he's safely in the shower with the water on (hot or cold at that point he doesn't even care) and even then tries not to (if he can help it, and sometimes, he can't). Three minutes (at best), he's shaking against the tile, still half-hard and more frustrated than relieved, trying to convince himself he imagined that look because then, just maybe, he'll stop wanting something that doesn't even exist.

He's trying to find the motivation to sit up--maybe even remove his boots before going to sleep, but no promises there--when the lights go out. Startled, he opens his eyes in time for the gentler flare of light from the lamp beside the bed in his peripheral vision, and abruptly, Cas appears in front of him, depressingly fully dressed for bed.

"Do you plan to fall asleep there?" Cas asks politely, like Dean's done this so many times that his history makes it a genuine concern, Jesus Christ, that was three times almost five months ago, let it the fuck go.

He lifts a hand enough to gesture vaguely: eh, why not?

"Along with the establishment of a daily routine consisting of regular meals and a set time to go to sleep, changing clothes before going to bed is a mandatory requirement to live like people," Cas recites, eyes lingering on Dean's footwear with a pained look. "While your explanation of the concept of 'like people' has been somewhat lacking, your utilization of the principles of classical conditioning was successful beyond belief despite the fact I was perfectly aware of what you were doing."

Dean slow blinks his bewilderment that Cas would think he knows anything about Pavlov or a dog with a hardon for bells (or a cat that may or may not be in a goddamn box and a monkey that thinks its mom is made of wire, whatever). And if some people are wondering if you could call the cabin a really elaborate Skinner box, he'd have no idea what they were talking about.

"What's the Latin word for 'rat' again?" he asks curiously, and that, friends, is how you level the fuck up. If you can't do it with obscure references to twentieth century psychology experiments in ten words or less, you just aren't trying.

Cas stares at him silently for a long moment then rolls his eyes, which Dean silently accepts as a win. "In any case…" His gaze drifts back down to Dean's boot-clad feet with a pained expression. "I can't let you go to bed like this, I mean that literally. Boots do not belong in bed when you plan to sleep."

That's all the warning he gets before Cas drops out of sight, and Dean pushes up on his elbows to stare blankly down the length of his body at Cas kneeling at his feet, holy shit.

"Uh." The mattress feels real, but he has a history of vivid hallucinations that have a very unsettling habit to have more or less actually happened, so. "What?"

"Relax," Cas tells him irritably, tugging Dean's right foot into his lap and with it two-thirds of Dean's ability to deal with this rationally. "I'll take care of it."

He knows Cas isn't actually fucking with him via weaponized sexual attraction (though not like he's above it or anything), but fucking with him via being super helpful, which are two very, very different things. This is Cas (who also maybe should learn about the word 'adjustment') utterly oblivious to how the same action reads a lot different with a change of context, or the fact he's inventing entirely new kinks that Dean just didn't know could even exist. Like, say, casually removing your partner's boots as foreplay: that's a thing? Why is that a thing? Because, by the way, that just became a thing.

"In ancient times, the customs regarding hospitality included removing the footwear and then washing the feet of guests," Cas tells him conversationally, removing the first boot with so little effort that Dean's socked foot doesn't even know it's free before he's already removing the other one. "On their arrival, before dinner--in ancient Rome, socks might be offered to counteract the chill of the dining room or before guests retired to their bed. There were practical reasons, of course; when the primary footwear was sandals or the streets lacked paving, it tended to be a matter of assuring one's domicile was not tracked with dirt from the feet of the guests."

This is actually happening. "They washed people's feet when they showed up to hang out?"

"A slave might be appointed to perform the task." Cas carefully sets Dean's boots beside his own before reaching beneath the hem of his jeans. "However, when the visitor was a close friend or of high rank and great importance, the host might perform this small service themselves to show respect."

Dean nods, mostly resigned to a bedtime story about socks (about. socks), though it's not like this is the weirdest subject (Lucifer's lack of a sex life is definitely in the top three), and anyway he's actually kind of interested (fuck his life). Like, who invented socks, anyway? Making an effort, he sits up, about to ask about that when he realizes he's looking down at Cas (kneeling. On the floor) and the entirety of his attention is focused on the feel of Cas's fingertips just above the sagging top of the sock, warm even through the layer of thermal underwear.

"In other times," Cas is saying, oblivious to subtext, "a bath would be offered. That duty could fall to either the chatelaine or the daughters of the house."

What the hell? "They--they bathed their guests?"

"Depending on the intimacy or rank of the guest, it might simply be ceremonial and she would supervise those servants or slaves assigned to the task." Achingly slow, the sock slides down Dean's leg, trailed by Cas's fingers, and he catches his breath when they skim over the bare skin of his Achilles tendon. Almost absently, Cas's other hand cups his heel, thumb braced just above the edge of the sock as it continues its endless journey off his foot. "If he was of high rank, however, she--or in some cases her eldest unmarried daughter--would perform the duty herself." Holding the empty sock, Cas looks at Dean, all blue eyed innocence. "Personally."

"Personally." He hears the quiver in his voice and hastily clears his throat. "Uh, so--I'm guessing nine months later, surprise new member of the family?"

"In some cultures, a highly anticipated and hoped-for member," Cas corrects him. Even though he knows it's coming, that just makes it a--a highly anticipated shock when Cas eases the denim hem higher, fingers resting for a scorching moment against his calf, hot even through the thermal. "If male, the woman could be chosen as a concubine, having proven her fertility, and mother of the presumptive heir if no legal wives bore male issue. Sometimes, she might even become a wife, if she was intelligent and fortune favored her." Dean sucks in a breath at the slide of Cas's thumb down the back of his heel. "Even if the child were female, it could bring great honor and prosperity to the household. For the mother, that might take the form of a husband of rank and wealth. Women known to have pleased a king and proven their fertility were often sought after in court; taking such a one to wife assured their husband not only the probability of healthy offspring, but the favor of a king and guardianship of a child of royal blood and potentially half-sibling to the heir and future king, whether openly acknowledged by their father or not."

"Huh." That's really all he's got here.

"It was traditional that the most beautiful daughters of the King of Ethiopia were sent to the court of the King of Egypt for his harem. Their children might sit on the throne as consort or even sovereign in their own right should there be no heirs born of his legal wife." Cas's thumb skims the arch of his foot, trailing off as the sock pulls free of Dean's toes. Hypnotized, he watches as Cas absently rolls them together before tossing them toward their boots without looking. "Harems were not uncommon in history, of course, though their occupants were far more often chosen for their high birth and political value, not their beauty or fecundity. During Mithridantes conquest of Pontus, he took a concubine from every satrap, insurance against rebellion. His harem numbered in the thousands."

His boot-and-sock work complete, Cas starts to move and stops short when Dean digs his bare heels into Cas's lap. "Where are you going?"

"You should--"

"--get to bed, right." Dean cocks his head. "Gonna finish or what?"

Cas flickers an uncertain glance to the bare feet in his lap, eyebrows knitting uncertainly before looking at Dean. "Finish--describing harems in Pontus during the reign of Mithridantes?"

He thinks maybe it's time to teach Cas the meaning of 'context'.

"Yeah, that too." Dean braces a hand on the mattress behind him and leans back, watching Cas go still, blue eyes dark; there we go. "Anytime you’re ready."

Dean can feel the drag of his gaze from his face to his feet and all the way back. "Where would you like me to start?"

He shrugs. "Your pick."

Cas rests his hands on Dean's knees, ghosting against his jeans before sliding just behind Dean's knees, and with a tug, he's sitting on the edge of the bed. Breath trapped in his throat, Dean closes his hands over the edge of the mattress and doesn't look away.

"I'll start here," Cas says, tilting his head. "Stand up."

Dean obeys so fast he almost loses his balance, but Cas pushes off his heels and catches him before he can stumble, looking up at him with approving blue eyes. "Very good," he says, sliding his hands up Dean's thighs until he reaches the waist of the jeans. "Don't move."

Dazed, he manages to nod, breath catching as Cas's fingers skim the skin just above the denim and come to a pause just over the top button.

"Mithridantes had harems spread throughout Pontus," Cas says, thumbing open the top button, "so wherever he went, he was assured of the attention he felt was his due." Another button, Christ. "Some were left for years, even decades, between visits from their king. Their only company was the eunuchs that guarded them, their children on occasion…and each other, of course."

Dean nods jerkily, mouth dry. "Of course." A quick tug, and the remaining buttons part one by one before Cas guides the jeans down his legs, and Dean steps out of them at a touch. "What was it like? When you were there?"

Cas's voice lowers huskily. "They felt no sense of neglect, no loss in the lack of their master's attention. They enjoyed each other's company far too much to look upon a potential visit from their king as anything other than an inconvenience, and to dance attendance on his person an unpleasant duty."

Usually, this would be the stuff of Dean's fantasy life, but that was before and this is now and right now, he can't really focus on harems of hot women having sex with each other. Scrolling through his memory are hours spent indulging Sam's obsession with the goddamn Classic Movie Channel, decadent scenes of marble floors and sunken baths and bottles of oil, naked bodies emerging hip-high from pools, pitchers of water pouring over wet skin.

Any other time, he'd ask what kind of mission required Cas be in Mithridantes' goddamn harem (and knowing what he knows now about the Host and sex, why the hell Cas got the job), but Cas wandering curiously around a harem of sexing women oiling each other in giant marble baths is pretty much the last thing on his mind when Cas is right in front of him.

"You may sit down now," Cas tells him after helping him into the wash-soft sweatpants, and after a long moment, Dean's brain catches up enough to remember what that is, dropping onto the edge of the bed like a sack of potatoes.

Easing himself off his heels, Cas looks up at him; it takes everything for Dean not to move, hands clenched in the quilt, watching as Cas smoothly stands up. Tipping his head back, Dean meets the blue eyes and lifts his arms without prompting, because no one ever said that when he picks a course of action he doesn't know how to commit.

Cas smiles slowly. "Good."

Never looking away, he bends down to grasp the hem of the sweater, gathering it in his hands as he slides it up Dean's body inch by excruciating inch, and Dean's arms are trembling by the time it's tugged over his head and deliberately folded before being set on the chair. Returning, Cas eases the thermal up as well, and Dean just manages not to gasp at the skim of fingers on his bare arms as the thermal's pulled free, folded, and placed on the chair.

Only a t-shirt left, and Dean fails at not shivering in anticipation as Cas comes back and hopes to God that Cas doesn't take that the wrong way. Pausing between Dean's knees, Cas looks at him before dropping into a crouch, and even though he sees it coming, he stills when Cas touches his cheek, palm shaping itself to his face. Without thinking, he turns into it, lips grazing the heel of Cas's hand, and almost hears the snap. In the time it takes to inhale, Dean's pressed into the mattress by the welcome weight of Cas's body, and forgets to exhale--forgets to breathe--with Cas's tongue buried in his mouth.

Tangling his fingers in Cas's hair, Dean rides the rush: of getting this, getting Cas, the taste and feel of him, Jesus, arching helplessly when Cas's thigh rides against his cock, hips pinned to the bed; he's not going anywhere unless Cas lets him.

Then Cas pulls back with an obscenely wet sound, and oh fuck no. "Cas," he starts, not giving a shit how desperate he sounds, trying to pull him back down and doesn't even realize Cas moved until his wrists are pinned to the bed with effortless ease.

Licking dry lips, Dean wonders dazedly how shitty an impression it would make to come right now and how much control he has over that anyway (answer: not much).

"Don't move," Cas says, fingers flexing in emphasis, and somehow, Dean manages to nod agreement; right now, there's pretty much nothing Cas could tell him to do that wouldn't get the exact same response. Satisfied, Cas smiles down at him, slow and dark. "I'm not done yet."

In a single easy stretch, Cas sits back on his heels, eyes trailing down Dean's body for what feels like years before his eyes fix on the rucked-up hem of his t-shirt. Bracing a hand on the bed by Dean's hip, he leans over, and Dean's head hits the mattress at the feel of Cas's mouth against the stretch of bare skin between t-shirt and sweatpants.

Staring up at the ceiling, Dean's aware of nothing but the wet brush of Cas's tongue, a hint of teeth before he sucks an endless kiss into the hypersensitive skin low on his belly that sparkles on the edge of pain before pulling back, licking soothingly before nosing the cotton higher and doing it again.

Forever: he didn't know the meaning of the word until now, when Cas marks a deliberate trail from stomach to collar, the thin cotton vanishing entirely between Cas's tongue in the hollow of his throat and sliding back into his mouth. He wants to touch Cas, but he doesn't move his hands, because he wants Cas more than he's ever wanted anyone or anything in his life.

Almost distantly, he feels Cas's fingers lace through his against the mattress before losing himself in the endless, drugging kiss.